'Shop with a Cop' sends extra help to Gifford families
CHAMPAIGN — When a tornado destroyed the family farmhouse outside Gifford last month, Nicole Swinney feared there would be no Christmas for her 11-year-old twins at the Rantoul rental they now call home.
Little did she know that a secret Santa had already added Evan and Emma's names to a special list.
Christmas arrived early Tuesday night for the Swinneys and 25 other families, whose children were all treated to holiday shopping sprees, thanks to the Champaign Police Department. As part of its annual Shop With a Cop event, 59 boys and girls each got a police escort — and $120 to spend on whatever they wanted — at the Champaign Meijer store.
For Evan, that meant a Batman video game, a Nerf gun and a variety of Nerf toys. "These are so cool!" he said.
With Detective Sgt. Dave Griffet along for the ride, Emma picked out a skateboard, a foot massager, a DJ mixer and some glow-in-the-dark toys. "I always wanted a skateboard," she said.
The 11th edition of Shop With a Cop was a historic one, with current and former police officers, Meijer and anonymous donors raising a whopping $7,300 for clothes, groceries and toys — lots of toys. The thankful families hailed from Champaign, Mahomet, Rantoul, Savoy, Sidney, Tolono, Urbana, Villa Grove — and Gifford, of course.
Event organizer Ed Wachala, a Champaign police officer, said the children who came out Tuesday were recommended by officers who observed families in need in the course of their duties throughout the year.
Then Nov. 17 happened. In the days following the tornado, Wachala said, Champaign police learned of several Gifford families who lost most or all of their possessions.
"We had some extra money, so we decided we wanted to help out some Gifford families," Wachala said. "We initially had enough money for four families, and then we learned about a fifth family with two kids we wanted to help. But we were $200 short."
So Wachala sent out a special request to his fellow Champaign police officers, asking for their help covering the cost of one more family's gifts.
Two-hundred dollars, and they were done.
"In a three-hour period, I had $1,200," Wachala said. "And in a day and a half, I had $2,000. Four different guys gave the entire $200 requested. They said to go out and help some more Gifford families, so we added four more Gifford families."
And there was enough left over to increase every child's allotment by $20 — to $120 — making for some happy kids during Tuesday's three-hour funfest.
Champaign Police Officer Katherine Thompson pushed a shopping cart as a family from Urbana stuffed it with an assortment of toys.
"We got some Barbie stuff, we got some crayons, we got some Legos and building blocks: all the necessities!" she said.
OfficerJerad Gale said helping out with the event makes him proud to be a Champaign policeman.
"It's always a blast to give the kids toys and see how happy they are," Gale said.
The evening ended with a pizza party for the families and the officers.
A little boy raised his hand, asking, "Is Santa Claus for real?"
Wachala nodded his head as he looked at all the officers gathered in the store.
"He sure is," Wachala said with a grin. "Santa Claus is here tonight."
Nicole and Michael Swinney's twins couldn't agree more.
Nicole said she was shocked when Champaign police invited her and her kids to take part in the program.
"At first I thought they were asking for a donation, and, when I realized they were extending the program to tornado victims, I started bawling," she said as she teared up. "It is wonderful.
"This Christmas is going to be so much more special than any Christmas before because of the love and generosity shown to us by these police officers."