Originally published by Veronica Wernicke, The Villages Daily Sun
Mileaya Levy, of Leesburg, sorted through the bin of Squishmallows as she looked for the perfect one. She hasn’t been able to shop for toys in a while, but thanks to the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office she could this year. “It’s very exciting,” said Mileaya, a student at The Villages Charter Middle School. “It makes you very happy because you see how people are very generous. You rarely get this opportunity in your life.” On Saturday, 65 SCSO deputies and explorers took local children shopping for Christmas presents at the Walmart in Oxford as part of its annual Kids, Cops and Christmas program, a program that matches children from low-income families with local law enforcement to shop for holiday gifts and clothing. Deputy Blair Rutz, a school resource officer at The Villages Charter School, donned an elf Christmas hat as he shopped with Mileaya and her family.
This is Rutz’s seventh year participating in the program and he loves every minute of it.
“(I enjoy) being able to spend time with my kids, because a lot of them are kids that go to my school so I get to hang out with them,” he said. “I love seeing their faces.”
Thanks to the support of many residents and lifestyle groups in The Villages, the sheriff’s office raised $85,000 and was able to take about 400 children shopping this year.
Each child got to spend $125, said Theresa Cooper, community outreach coordinator. After spending the morning at the Walmart in Oxford, the sheriff’s office headed down to the Walmart in Bushnell to help families living down south, she said.
Tristan Adams, 7, had a huge smile as he walked the toy aisle with his mom, Jerica Adams, and Deputy Danielle Atwood.
“We feel blessed that they chose Tristan and he is very excited,” said Jerica, of Oxford.
The Sumter County School Board chooses children from schools across Sumter County including Sumter P.R.E.P Academy, The Villages Charter School, Wildwood Middle High School and Wildwood Elementary, said Lt. Robert Siemer, Villages district supervisor.
“I absolutely love this program,” Siemer said. “This is an opportunity for our law enforcement officers to volunteer their time. It just makes you smile when you see these kids getting Christmas. It’s possible they wouldn’t get Christmas without something like this.”
Siemer and the entire sheriff’s office is especially thankful to the community, Walmart and its volunteers for making this event possible each year.
“It’s been a very good year for us and the people helping us with this program,” he said. “We’re really happy about that.”
Whether it was a deputies first time participating in Kids, Cops and Christmas or not, seeing how happy they make the children and seeing their faces light up, makes it all worth the while, Atwood said.
“It’s a good opportunity not only for law enforcement, but civilians to get together and know this is a happy time of year, especially since some people don’t have that,” she said.
This program also serves as a way for the community and law enforcement officers to connect, better understand each other and build positive relationships outside of their typically circumstances.
“It’s really nice that (the sheriff’s office) gives back to the community,” Jerica said. “It makes a big impact on the children and their relationships with law enforcement.”