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Police and Children Team Up in Local Christmas Shopping Spree

Hyattsville, Laurel, UMd, Greenbelt, Bowie and a host of local law enforcement officers pitch in to make sure underprivileged children aren't forgotten on Christmas.

Even grown police officers can cry as evidenced by a local Christmas shopping program for underprivileged kids. Capt. Carl DeWalt with the Laurel Police Department couldn't keep the tears from falling when he shared his story about a boy who wanted to buy boots at Christmas, according to Hyattsville Police Sgt. Michael Rudinski, who started the program Operation Santa With a Badge.

It was the captain's first time in the program, and he picked a boy from Laurel Elementary to go shopping with, DeWalt recounted. Once at the mall, the boy immediately went to buy two gifts for a newborn that DeWalt recalls may have been his niece.

DeWalt kept telling him he only had $100 to work with and gave him updates on how much he had left, but next the boy bought a gift for his sister.

"It was emotional just to see the good in little kids like that and what they think," said DeWalt. "He thought about himself last. He thought about his niece and his sister first."

Finally, DeWalt persuaded him to buy something for himself. The store was full of toys, but he went for boots. DeWalt said he saw why when the boy took off his tennis shoes to reveal a pair of muddy wet socks. His shoes were full of holes.

Two years later the boy still walks by the station from time to time, DeWalt said. And when he sees his former shopping buddy, the captain, he yells out and stops to talk. Fortunately, his shoes look a lot better these days, according to DeWalt.

"The stories that come out of this are absolutely amazing," said Rudinski, who began the program in 2003.

Some kids are selected because of a tragedy in their lives or due to economic circumstances. Others get in because they've lost a father or mother or have parents serving in the armed services for a long period of time, he said.

In the beginning, all Rudinski wanted was to join a shopping program for underprivileged kids that he and his wife had heard about in a TV commercial. But when he checked into it, he was told it didn't exist. So that first year, Rudinski started one with a small cluster of eight kids. It grew over time and other Prince George's County law enforcement groups joined in.

Some officers participated because their departments assigned them the task, but they came back year after year on their own, Rudinski said. Last year, Operation Santa With a Badge served 84 children, Rudinski said.

"This is a sight to behold," he said talking about how on Dec. 8, as in past years, officers will meet the children early in the morning at their schools. Then with sirens sounding and lights flashing, they will head to The Mall at Prince George's. On the way, officers from other municipality's will join the stream of police cars taking children to meet Santa and go shopping.

The Laurel Police Department is one of those set to join the caravan with children from Laurel. As of Wednesday, it had raised enough donations to bring 12 boys and girls, much of the money was donated by the Laurel Lions

"It definitely goes to kids that wouldn't have very much of a Christmas otherwise," said Ofc. Theresa Kelliher, Laurel Police Department spokeswoman. She said one of the children Laurel is bringing this year is living in a hotel.

Hyattsville, Cheverly and the University of Maryland all plan to take part in Operation Santa With a Badge as well, Rudinski said.

The Prince George's Office of The Sheriff is also one of the program's largest contributors, Rudinski said, adding that over the years many law enforcement groups have made sure the program has had enough officers to shop with children.

"It's kind of infectous," Rudinski said.

The Glenarden and Bowie police departments have also participated in years past, and now they've started programs in their own communities for underprivileged children, according to Rudinski.

Bowie Police spokesman Sgt. Bernie Henderson said it sometimes sends out officers to help, but it also started its own program three years ago in partnership with Target. He recounted a story from their most recent shopping venture in 2012, where officers were touched by two brothers and a sister, whose house had burned the week before Christmas.

The children ranged in age from  4 to 11 and showed no concern for what they wanted for Christmas. Instead, they set out to buy presents for their mom, dad and each other, he said.

Rudinski has also noticed a lot of selflessness among children and officers. Kids will shop for coats for their mom or gifts for other family members. And sometimes they don't have all they need. More than one officer has reached in his or her own pocket to make up the difference, he said.

Operation Santa With a Badge participants are usually picked by neutral parties like schools, Rudinski said, and the program is sponsored by the Maryland Association of School Resource Officers. Hyattsville participants have already been selected, though, so new participants will not be added this year, he said.

Operation Santa With a Badge's website has more information for interested parties and those wishing to make donations, which are tax deductible, Rudinski said.

Prince George's municipalities like Greenbelt Maryland Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #32 have been hosting tax deductible programs for their city's underprivileged children as well—and are still accepting donations. Its police and shoppers will head out to Prince George's Plaza on Dec. 15.

County law enforcement municipalities with holiday programs are welcome to list information and contact details in the comments section of this post so participants and donors can learn more.

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