The Niles Police Department helped Santa once again.
NILES — With little white on the ground and even less green in people’s pockets, the Niles Police Department is hoping to cure a few families’ financial blues this holiday.
In a tradition only a few years old, off-duty officers took area children on a shopping spree Monday morning in the annual “Shop with a Cop” program. Families under the crunch of layoffs, rising heating costs and an expensive season were treated to $100 gift cards for each child at the Target store in Niles.
Parents and their children gathered at 9 a.m. in the breezy entrance to start shopping.
Kelly Nolen, who has two sons, David and Alex, said the event was a big help for her and her husband, Victor. He had recently been knocked down to part time at his job, hitting the family income hard.
“We just moved out of his parents’ home and got our own place,” the young mother explained. “I had to save up money just to move to the new house.”
The Nolens, like the other families, were referred to “Shop with a Cop” through the assistance program at Niles Community Services.
Jim Villecco, a Niles officer and president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 27, said the department raised money from private donations, spending 100 percent of its collections on 31 children this year.
Awaiting the go-ahead from their shopping mate, officer Kevin Helmick, Nolen directed her sons to each put a hand on the side of the cart to keep from running astray.
“Where do you want to go first?” Helmick asked the children. “Clothes?”
The children offered a quiet, solemn response, hoping he wasn’t serious, while parents chuckled.
Quickly, the herd of red plastic carts curved around the store. It was off to the toy section.
A wide-eyed, 5-year-old Alex couldn’t wait, and was the first to let go of his mother’s cart.
“Can I have one, Mommy?” he requested, pointing to the nearest item on the nearest end cap of the toy department. David, 8, his slightly more modest brother, was excited for only one type of toy.
“They love Hot Wheels. The bottom of their toy box is about this thick with them,” said Kelly, demonstrating with a 3-inch gap between her two hands.
She explained that her two boys weren’t prepared for their toy choices because she never told them about the spree. She was told by NCS about three weeks ago and had kept it a surprise until the sleepy-eyed boys arrived at Target that morning.
However unexpected, Alex had already filled the cart with massive toys: a planetarium projector, a tool kit and other fun makers his classmates at Lincoln Elementary would want to share, if not envy.
“He’s my expensive child,” said Kelly, who had to coach her older son into selecting more gifts for himself.
It was as though David was already too aware — for his age — of the remaining money on the gift cards and was worried they might overspend.
“This is all I want,” he said of the packets of tiny race cars. Eventually, though, his mom persuaded him to choose more.
In the end, they did overspend — by $10.92, which the police department picked up without issue. They’d also be treated to a meal at O’Charley’s restaurant immediately after the toy hunt, courtesy of the uniformed men and women.
Eating was not the priority for the boys though. There were bags of unopened toys waiting for them.
“When we get home, can we play with our stuff?” David begged.