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Coatesville event is in its 7th year.

Santa's helpers in blue brighten children's holiday

Coatesville City Police Detective Gerald Pawling shops for toys with Marquis Olinick (left), 8, and his daughter Olivia, 7, at the Wal-Mart store in Parkesburg.
Coatesville City Police Detective Gerald Pawling shops for toys with Marquis Olinick (left), 8, and his daughter Olivia, 7, at the Wal-Mart store in Parkesburg.Read moreAKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer

The cacophonous caravan that descended on the Parkesburg Wal-Mart yesterday included a dozen siren-blaring police vehicles and two busloads of revved-up children - a spectacle that ultimately could have charmed the Grinch himself.

As shoppers looked up in wonder, bubbly cheerleaders from Coatesville High handed out fliers explaining the "Shop with a Cop" program - an opportunity to give disadvantaged children a shopping spree with a uniformed police escort.

"One customer told me she hadn't been in the Christmas spirit at all until she saw this," Coatesville Police Chief Julius Canale said as he jockeyed a shopping cart, an expense tally sheet, and a 10-year-old boy.

Canale said the program was in its seventh year and growing, thanks to its sponsors and volunteers. He said that the event began with just the Coatesville Police Athletic League but that it was so successful that other law enforcement agencies and fire departments had joined.

He said that the children, who range in age from about 5 to 15, were selected by a host of social-service agencies. They are given a spending limit of $100 and encouraged to buy gifts for relatives and themselves.

The latter option created a dilemma for Tyshawn Gardiner, 10. He had already scooped up presents for his mother, brother, and sister, when he was stopped in his tracks. Before him was the bike of his dreams, but it was a budget buster.

If he bought it, he would have to put most of the other gifts back, and he had not yet selected anything for his father. After considerable agonizing, he decided to settle for a less expensive scooter. And then he happily continued shopping.

Chester County Sheriff Carolyn "Bunny" Welsh said she enjoyed the antics of a new addition to the program: two deputies in elf costumes who cavorted with the children, competing for attention with Sparky the firedog.

"This really is such a special event," Welsh said.

Donna Walton, community program specialist for the Coatesville Police Department, said the event took about three months to prepare and owed a huge debt to its many sponsors.

"Everything we do here is donated," she said, citing the Fire Store and Officer Store in Coatesville as the biggest donors.

Jim Witmer, who owns the two stores, and his wife, Ruth, said they were motivated to get involved after attending the event two years ago when only one busload of children was served.

Coatesville Detective Gerald Pawling, one of the organizers, said 85 children participated this year.

Ruth Witmer said they offered their employees the chance to wear jeans on Fridays for a $2 donation and pledged to match whatever amount the workers raised, which produced a $10,000 check this year.

"These officers are so passionate about the kids," said Jim Witmer, who is also an assistant fire chief in East Brandywine Township. "They are building great relationships for the future."

Members of the public were equally impressed.

"One woman asked me why the store had such a heavy security presence," said Coatesville Police Officer Rodger Ollis Jr., who enjoyed her positive response to his explanation.

Shopping excursions ranged from 10 minutes to well over an hour, depending on how quickly the children could make decisions, and in some cases, unmake them.

Asked how he felt about his selections, Jason Stanley flashed a big smile and gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

"It almost brings tears to my eyes," said Karen Scherer, a shopper who lives in Cochranville and watched some of the activity. "It definitely puts the meaning back in Christmas."