By Lance Fleming
Photography by Rickey Brown
A few years ago – in the midst of the storm of “Community vs. Cops” that raged in many parts of the United States – Megan Allred decided to do something in her hometown to help foster trust between the community and its police officers.
As the girlfriend of an Abilene police officer, she went to the APD spouses’ group and told them “we have to do something locally” akin to a Facebook post she had seen about a project in San Angelo that had its police officers going shopping with underprivileged children. That group listened and began formulating a plan that took pieces of similar operations from police departments in Austin, Houston and San Antonio, combining them into a project that best fit Abilene.
And that’s how this city’s version of Operation Blue Santa came into existence. The project’s mission is to “enhance relationships in the community by giving back during the Christmas season.” Funds raised for the operation allow a select number of Abilene school-age children who are identified as either in need or at-risk to be paired with an Abilene police officer for a day of Christmas shopping at Abilene’s northside Wal-Mart location. The officers assist the children in selecting Christmas gifts, food, toiletries and other household items for their families.
Sounds simple, but it wasn’t that easy. First, the project needed someone from inside the department to be the “face” of the project. Enter patrolman Josh New, who was coaxed into it by his wife, J.J. New, and Allred, who told him they would do the work; he just had to be the person at the forefront of the project.
“When Megan, Rachel Slaymaker and my wife and a couple of other spouses pitched this idea to me, it was a no-brainer,” Josh New said. “We were kind of an ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality; not necessarily here in Abilene, but nationwide. I thought it made sense to let the community see the police in a positive light. We haven’t had some of the problems here in Abilene that we’ve all seen in other parts of the country, but it didn’t hurt to be pro-active and show people that we were more than just law enforcement, that we really care about the citizens we protect.”
With the face of the project in place, Allred and her group that now included New as president, herself as vice president, motor officer David “Scooter” Thompson as treasurer and Slaymaker as secretary began putting a plan together that would help brighten Christmas for some of Abilene’s underprivileged and at-risk children.
“We reached out to several departments across the state to see how they did their own Operation Blue Santa, how they divided funds and all of the different things they did,” said Allred, who serves as vice president of operations at First Abilene Federal Credit Union and is married to Abilene patrolman Jake Allred. “In Austin they simply deliver a box of goods to families, which is a great work, but we wanted to do more than that. We were able to pick and choose some things from each of those departments and put together what we think is best for us.”
What turned out to be best was a system that begins at the schools with administrators, teachers and counselors – as well as patrol officers – nominating children to be part of the program. Those eligible for the shopping spree aren’t necessarily just underprivileged, but, as Allred said, “it might be a child who’s being bullied at school or one that has an illness in their immediate family. Or maybe even one who’s being raised by grandparents or aunts and uncles and might not have much of a Christmas.”
One of those children was a young girl whose older sisters had been abducted when she was very young. Two years later (2016) they were found and re-joined the family, turning the younger one’s life upside down. She was selected that year to be part of the day of shopping because, as Allred said, “her life had been turned upside down since she was no longer an only child. We wanted to help that girl as much as we want to help the child of a single mom who won’t admit she needs help because she’s too proud to ask for assistance.”
Nominations for children in kindergarten through third grade are made in October and November each year, although neither the children being nominated nor their parents know they are in line to be part of the operation. The selection committee is made up of undercover police officers who don’t get to shop (officers must be in full uniform to shop with the children). After the selections are made by the committee, officers show up at the different schools, pull them out of class and inform them that a few days later they’ll be shopping for themselves and their families as part of Operation Blue Santa.
The project has grown incrementally since the first year in 2015, reaching 86 children and their families in 2016, almost 100 in 2017 and at least 100 in 2018. The program draws students from all over Abilene, but especially from schools in poorer neighborhoods like Martinez and Thomas elementary schools.
Cindy Hay, now in her fifth year as the principal at Thomas Elementary, said Operation Blue Santa is a perfect fit for her campus, which is about 75 percent economically disadvantaged.
“When we started with Operation Blue Santa, some of our kids were a little bit hesitant to be involved in anything with the police,” Hay said. “We have a set of brothers here who have been at a couple of different schools and have been able to participate in Blue Santa. I have no idea what they’ve seen at home, but it’s hard to put into words how their trust has grown in the police officers of Abilene.”
Building that relationship between the students and the police officers has been the underlying goal of the entire project. But it’s not just about building bonds; it’s showing the students they’re cared for, even if it’s not shown at home.
“I was at Clack Middle School before coming to Thomas, so I’ve seen a lot of bad situations, and it breaks your heart to know what some of these kids are going through at home,” Hay said. “At Thomas, as soon as they walk through the doors we love on them and care for them and try to make them feel as important as anyone else on campus. We don’t hesitate to go out and buy them shoes or winter coats. Most of us are in this business because we care for kids, and that’s what’s been great about the association with Operation Blue Santa because those police officers are showing them the same thing. This campus is my mission field, and I think most educators feel that way. I don’t need to go abroad to try and help people because we have just as many hurting hearts here in Abilene as anywhere else.”
The night before the day of shopping – this year’s day is Saturday, Dec. 8 – is a whirlwind of activity getting things set up and ready for the next day. Involved in that is packing boxes that have been sponsored, like the food box that includes non-perishable staples, as well as the items needed for a traditional Christmas dinner. Everything, that is, except the meat. The group gave away turkeys in 2015, but quickly heard back that many of the families didn’t have an oven in their home, and, therefore, had no way to cook the turkey. Now placed in the box is either a rotisserie chicken or a voucher to return to Wal-Mart closer to Christmas to claim the chicken.
Organizers also found that the children were spending more time shopping for their family needs – food, heaters, blankets, coats, etc. – than they were on themselves, which set into motion another plan. Beltway Park Church sponsors the organization’s Coat Closet, which provides a new winter coat to each of the children, and other sponsors like the Abilene High band have stepped up to provide food staples like peanut butter and jelly, hygiene products and other items that don’t come out of the child’s shopping budget.
“When we take the kids shopping the kids have a list of family members and major needs,” Josh New said. “Most of them shop for others first rather than themselves, which is truly amazing to see. We don’t let the families tag along with the kid because we want the child and the officer to have that positive experience with each other. We don’t want the parent or the guardian influencing why the children are there. We want to show the love of Jesus to everyone that’s there that day and take care of neighbors. That’s the most rewarding thing for me.”
Hay said one of the most rewarding things for her is seeing the interaction between the children and the police and how attitudes change.
“When these kids are informed they’ve been chosen they are absolutely ecstatic because they realize they can give back to their families,” she said. “These kids need positive interaction from anyone who can give it to them, but in so many cases it’s probably good that it’s the police.”
One of the officers who participated for the first time in 2017 was rookie patrol officer Kristen Stone, who grew up in Abilene, joined the APD in January 2017 and hit the streets last October. She was paired with a young girl who had two other sisters, so all three sisters and their assigned officers shopped together, making for an unforgettable day.
“It’s definitely a bittersweet situation,” Stone said. “As you go through the day with them they begin to open up and tell you what’s going on at home and it’s not always the best situation. Then the next minute they turn around and they’re happy with the small things. The older girl we had in our group shopped for everyone else before she shopped for herself. One of her main concerns was buying enough kitchen utensils for dinner because they had so many people in their house, but didn’t have enough utensils for everyone to eat dinner at the same time.”
Ultimately, the chance to have positive interaction with children whose parents might have had their own negative situations with the police is one of the biggest pieces to the project.
“We have some kids whose parents have dealt with us personally and some who haven’t, but it seems like at the beginning of the day a lot of the kids in general are afraid of the police,” Stone said. “But this is an opportunity for us to break the ice. They start out shy, but the more you talk to them and the more you get them to open up it makes them realize that most of the things they hear about the police from family members or friends isn’t true. They get a chance to see that we care about them and the community.”
Outside of Wal-Mart and Beltway, Operation Blue Santa has numerous business and individuals throughout the city that provide the necessary dollars to make the project a huge success each year. Wild Bill’s Pawn Shops serves as a drop-off location in November where citizens can drop new or unused gift-wrapping products, and its employees help wrap each gift after every child finishes shopping. Allred said it’s so that every person in the family has the Christmas morning experience of unwrapping gifts.
The Abilene Teachers Federal Credit Union sponsors shoes for each child so that a pair of shoes doesn’t come out of the shoppers’ budget. It’s those type of investments in the children of Abilene that Josh New and the leadership group will pay dividends down the road.
“This is a situation where the kids get to spend time with the police officers, and they see that they care about them,” New said. “And it’s not just the officers. It’s the volunteers who give their time to make it a great experience. It’s our sponsors who provide coats and shoes and hygiene products and basic necessities that these families can’t afford. When those kids arrive they’re usually a little bit nervous. But when they leave they’re all smiles because of the love they’ve been shown.”
In just four short years, Abilene’s version of Operation Blue Santa has grown beyond the wildest expectations of New, Allred or anyone else involved on the front end of the project. And now they’ve got their sights set on expanding it to a year-round operation.
“When we set this up, I said that we wouldn’t be doing this just to be doing it; we want more for our community and to share the great men and women working in the Abilene Police Department,” Allred said. “What we’d like to eventually have is a year-round grant program so that the same nominating people can come to us and apply for grants to help kids in need on their campuses. Maybe a student doesn’t have a working refrigerator at home; we’d like to be able to show up with a new refrigerator.
“We had a great campaign in 2016 and starting in 2017 we had heard that some of our schools were running low on some of the things they provide to students: coats, socks, underwear, etc., so we were able to stock their closets,” Allred said. “I believe we’re moving toward the day when we’ll be able to fully commit to that and continue moving it forward. We’ll still have our shopping day in December, but we also want to have a program available year-round so that people can reach out to us and know that we and the police officers of this community care about them.”