Fifteen underprivileged Ceres families with a total of 65 children were treated to a holiday gift buying spree at the Ceres Walmart store during Monday's fifth annual "Shop with a Cop" event. But rather than making a bee line straight to the toy aisles, many parents focused on necessities like clothing and school supplies.
When mother of six Vivian Marquez was told she had $700 to spend in the Ceres Police Department program, she was in tears.
"I'm going to mostly get them necessities, clothes, jackets and shoes and then I'll let them pick a toy," she said. "It's been a hard year. I say this is just a blessing. Otherwise it definitely would have been a hard Christmas. I recently broke up with their Dad recently and all the kids are by him."
Charlie Gross of the Ceres Partnership referred Marquez, who is now working two jobs to make ends meet, to the program for her children, aged 4, 5, 6, 8, 10 and 12.
Walmart helped underwrite $5,000 worth of the gift buying in addition to money supplied by numerous businesses such as Anderson's Towing, Ceres Pro Tow and Stanislaus Farm Supply. Each family was able to spend $500 to $750 depending on family size, said one of the organizers, Ceres Police Sgt. Greg Yotsuya.
The experience began when families - identified as being needy by the Ceres Partnership - linked up with one of about 18 officers lined up in the parking lot east of the store. Also waiting was Chuck Pederson who played Santa for the occasion. The former San Joaquin County high school teacher and husband of Marcy Pederson, administrative secretary to the Police Chief, said he has enjoyed playing Santa over past five or six years.
During the shopping experience, the families were treated to a free meal at McDonald's inside the store. A Walmart employee and officers were assigned to help out and in some cases keep track of the purchase total.
"You'd be surprised," said Sgt. Yotsuya. "A lot of the families need clothes, jackets, and diapers. These families are families that really need this."
Ceres Police Lt. Rick Collins was enjoying watching the shopping unfold as children and their parents were picking out items.
"What was so revealing is that you think Christmas and toys but they were buying clothes and necessities and that's how you know you're reaching a needy family," said Lt. Collins.
The "Shop with a Cop" event is different from the department's Beards for Kids Toy Drive, which is designed to bring awareness to children from poor families. The drive is to collect toys which will be given out in low-income neighborhoods this Saturday by Santa riding around in the Ceres Police SWAT vehicle, said Sgt. Greg Yotsuya. Those toys were wrapped by about 50 volunteers - including city employees - at city buildings.
The effort also includes distribution of 25 food baskets made possible by $1,000 in cash donated and discounted food at Cost Less Foods.
Yotsuya said he was overwhelmed by the donations from the business community and was particularly touched that Sherrill McManus Peterson came through with donations despite her Sam's Café being damaged by fire last month.
The first Shop with a Cop was held in 2012 involved officers taking gifts to homes of needy families.