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With Shop For A Cop, Local Families Enjoy A Blue Christmas

Zach Sparks
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December 5, 2017

When Anne Arundel County police officers patrolled Pasadena on December 2, they weren’t towing their average passengers. Buckled beside them were kids.

For the 14th year, the Fort Smallwood Optimist Club partnered with the police department to hold Shop With A Cop. The club provided $100 gift cards, the officers volunteered their Saturday and, following the kids’ shopping spree at the Pasadena Walmart, Two Rivers Steak & Fish House served food and screened Christmas films while volunteers wrapped the newly acquired gifts.

“We started this so that we could help kids who might not ordinarily have a great Christmas,” said Dave Bowman, president of the Fort Smallwood Optimist Club. “It might be because they have a single parent, or it may not even be a financial reason.”

In past years, beneficiaries were also chosen because they had a sick relative, a parent in the military or because their family had recently suffered from a house fire. Regardless of each kid’s situation, the club wants not only to bolster the children’s gift-giving budget but also humanize the police.

“We do it to show [the kids] there are people out there who care and to show them the officers are there to protect us,” Dave Bowman added. “The only experience they may have had with an officer is if their parent got a traffic ticket,” or, as event coordinator Pam Bowman added, “If their grandparent passes away.”

Since 2003, the Fort Smallwood Optimist Club and Anne Arundel County Police Department have worked diligently to change that perception while bringing holiday cheer to families in need. They started by sponsoring 12 children in 2003, getting the names from school counselors. In 2017, they helped 53 adolescents from Pasadena, Glen Burnie, Severna Park, Laurel, Jessup, Brooklyn Park and North Beach.

Shopping alongside those participants this year were youths selected by the Annapolis and Cherry Hill optimist clubs.

While Pam Bowman coordinates the event for the Fort Smallwood Optimist Club, Sergeant Dianne Venit handles planning from the police side. Although she had volunteered three times prior to 2017, this was her first in charge following the retirement of Bruce Whitlow.

One year, she even missed her aunt’s funeral so she could participate. “I’ve had a blast with it; it’s definitely worthwhile,” said Venit, who works in the county’s southern district. “I was a D.A.R.E. [Drug Abuse Resistance Education] officer for three years … and I’ve always liked that interaction with children.”

Venit relayed the story of how, last year, a child’s father was stationed in Iraq, so the team convened to buy decorations for the family’s Christmas tree.

Jayden and Layla Godleski, who live with their grandmother, Kelly Asbury, shopped with a cop the last three years.

“It was a surprise, and I was happy when I found out about it,” said Jayden, who is now 12 years old. The opportunity allowed him to purchase an angel necklace, an umbrella for his dad, lip gloss for his aunt, and some wrestling action figures and Xbox games for himself.

“They can spend the money any way they choose, but nine out of 10 decide to spend it on their family members,” Dave Bowman said.

The event is reliant on officers who return year after year, donating their time and, in some cases, their own money.

“Kids will go over the $100 mark and officers will spend $100 or $200 of their own money because the kids want certain things,” Dave said.

A testament to how the kids are treated, Asbury said her grandchildren didn’t even know that they received the opportunity because of their situation. “I had to explain that we’re in a better place now than when we started, and it’s time to let someone else have a turn,” she said.

Reflecting on another successful year, Dave Bowman hopes that the beneficiaries have a great holiday and remember their police pals as friends instead of foes.

“The one-on-one interaction is extremely important,” he insisted. “As I said earlier, a lot of times, this is their only association with the police, when something bad happens. So this is positive reinforcement that the police are here to help and they are dads, sisters, brothers and fathers.”

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