‘Shop with a Cop,’ Toys for Tots Spread Holiday Cheer

December 20, 2023
• A new Needham tradition allowed local law enforcement to connect with the community and give back for the holidays.

The Target in Westwood was swarming with Needham Police officers Dec. 16, but they weren’t there to arrest anyone. Instead, they were shopping with local children in need.

Two Shop with a Cop participants smile with their Target goodies alongside Needham Police Officer Danny Connor. Dec. 16, 2023. (Courtesy Needham Police Department)

Thanks to more than $4,000 in community donations, 31 kids picked out their own gifts through the Shop with a Cop program. Officers accompanied young shoppers, aged 3 through 16, through the store as they found items on their end-of-year wishlists.

The holidays are synonymous with gift-giving, but presents under the tree aren’t always a guarantee for some children. Families experiencing financial hardship, loss of a parent, homelessness, military deployment or other struggles requested to participate in Shop with a Cop via a Google form.

No child was turned away, School Resource Officer Joseph Brienze said.

“We were fortunate enough that we had enough donations from the town that we took in everyone that signed up,” said Brienze, who helped organize the program alongside Community Service Officer Kelley Scolponeti.

The kids arrived at the station to eat pizza and meet with the 12 volunteer officers, along with Chief John Schlittler, before traveling together to Target. Once there, their shopping cards filled up with pajamas, makeup, candy, gift cards, shoes, socks and yes, lots of toys.

Scolponeti described it as “organized chaos.”

Police Chief John Schlittler smiles with a young boy who participated in this year’s Shop with a Cop program. (Courtesy Needham Police Department)

“They were so happy. They were elated,” she said. “They would go from aisle to aisle to aisle, back to the first aisle… It was hard to keep track of them just because they were bouncing all over the place.”

The parents who attended expressed their gratitude for the program, with many asking for photos with the officers after check-out, Scolponeti said.

“There were some families that had three kids there,” Brienze said, “and they got almost $500 worth of stuff for free that they didn’t have to worry about paying for this Christmas.”

As an added bonus, Rocket and Ghost, the department’s two K-9 companions, provided extra furry comfort.

The department’s Toys for Tots gift drive was also deemed a success, collecting more than 1,300 presents.

While the Needham Fire Department has run its own Toys for Tots program before, it was the first year for the police force, Brienze said. In November, they set up boxes across town, including at Learning Express, The Center at The Heights, several schools and at the station.

“We had more toys than we knew what to do with,” Brienze said. “It was unbelievable to see.”

Saturday morning, they loaded up a bus — donated by the Needham Housing Authority — and drove them down to the Toys for Tots Boston headquarters, which will distribute those gifts across the state to families in need. They joined a convoy of local Toys for Tots groups from Babson College, Tufts University and UMass, Scolponeti said.

The Toys for Tots initiative also supported the Needham Police Working Dogs Foundation, which helps fund Ghost and Rocket’s food, medicine, upkeep and other expenses, Brienze said. Fifty percent of monetary donations to the foundation — about $450 of $900 raised — went toward buying gifts for Toys for Tots.

Needham Police officers unload the Toys for Tots donations they collected this year. (Courtesy Needham Police Department)

Scolponeti said she was “amazed” by the community support for both programs, which help the police form relationships with locals and act as a force of good. Children often approach officers with questions and requests for Ghost and Rocket trading cards, thanks to their presence in town, she said.

“If we didn’t do that, I don’t think the kids would come up to us as much as they do,” she said of their involvement.

As long as Needham kids need support, Needham Police hope to heed the call — Brienze said he hopes Shop with a Cop becomes a seasonal staple.

“We’d love to continue it, as long as a community can help us with it,” he said.

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