Last year, Christmas was looking pretty bleak for the Eugene Johnson family.
Johnson fell off a second story building onto a fence, and was hospitalized for weeks. Then he spent time in a wheelchair. He’s a single parent of two, and didn’t want any handouts. But he also wanted his kids to have a merry Christmas, so he agreed to be a part of the Shop With Cops program through the St. Paul Police Department and the Saint Paul Police Foundation.
“They made it really comfortable, and my kids had a good time,” said Johnson. ”I had a good time, and they got nice things.”
Officers played ball with the kids, interacted with families, and handed out toys. That’s what made a difference for his family.
“Sometimes you can’t figure it all out. Sometimes you can’t make it happen. It’s not a bad thing. You’re supporting something positive,” he said.
Johnson shared his story during a Midway Chamber of Commerce fundraiser on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022 at the Urban Growler event room.
“I want you to understand something. Everybody at some point needs a handout. There’s no better option to get it than from your neighborhood police,” he added. “We’ve just got to help each other.”
He’s hoping to be able to go back to work in the next six months, and then plans to pay it forward.
He encouraged people to do what they can for each other, like helping someone get out of a snowbank. “Just do it.”
When asked what he liked best from last year, Angelic, age eight, talked about a purple race car.
Nine-year-old Angelica’s answer was simple. “Happiness,” she said.
They were looking forward to the 2022 event the following week.
“I’m inspired by the people in this room,” remarked St. Paul’s new police chief Axel Henry. He looked at Johnson. “I’m inspired by you.”
‘IT GOES A LONG WAY’
Shop With Cops has been making Christmas a little brighter for St. Paul families for 22 years.
Some of the folks involved might not have had a good experience with a police officer, observed Kristen Sheehan of the St. Paul Police Foundation. At the Shop With Cops events, police officers run the games and interact with families. “It’s bridging the gap,” said Sheehan. The goal is to develop a better and more trusting relationship between citizens and officers. The event was established first in the Frogtown and Summit-University neighborhoods.
Officers spent about $20,000 buying items on Nov. 29, 2022, and families were invited in on Wednesday, Dec. 7 and Thursday, Dec. 8. The format changed after COVID-19. Previously, children and officers had gone shopping at the Midway Target together, and each kid received about $100 to buy gifts for their family. In 2020, St. Paul Police worked with a battered women’s shelter.
The program is about giving kids toys and also necessities such as coats and blankets. “It goes a long way,” stated Sheehan. “It helps make what could be a tough season a little easier.”
STARTING WITH CHAMBER PEOPLE
Senator John Hoffman (who used to run a business in the Midway), John Bennett of 21st Century Bank and Dan Leggett of Avant-Garde Marketing Solutions, and Jeff Fenske of Fenske Law Office decided to get involved in 2011 when they heard about it. In 10 days, they had booked a room, invited about 20 others, and pledged donations for the program. That first year, they raised about $1,000. They tripled that in 2012 to $3,375; and it kept growing. “Target was the largest contributor, followed by the chamber,” said Leggett.
“It just started with a bunch of chamber people,” recalled Hoffman.
“This is a national model that others have followed,” pointed out Bennett.
Today, 25 other cities have Shop With Cops programs modeled after the one St. Paul developed.
‘IT REALLY MATTERS’
Arnoldo Curiel has been with Shop With Cops since the start in 2000. He grew up in Frogtown, where his mother and grandmother still live. At the time, he was coordinator of the Frogtown Weed and Seed initiative, and he connected with retired Chief John Harrington, then a senior commander with the St. Paul Police Department Western District. From 2000 to 2004 the operating support for Shop with Cops came from federal Weed and Seed dollars, a strategy which “weeds” out crime in communities and plant the “seeds” for positive change and development.
Years ago, Curiel recalled, two deputies showed up at a domestic call and both parents were brought into custody. Their two young boys were taken to a children’s home. The officers picked the two boys up the next day, brought them out for breakfast, and made sure they were able to participate in the Shop With Cops program that night. In the meantime, a relative was located so that the boys could stay with family.
“Those two officers were about the community,” observed Curiel.
“That’s what happened. Two little kids’ whole lives were changed pretty radically. I have to guess the lives of the cops were changed, too,” said Hoffman.
“Shop With Cops helps kids and police officers,” remarked Midway Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Chad Kulas. “The St. Paul Police Department makes such a huge impact on so many people,” said Dan Batten of Drake Bank, this year’s event sponsor.
In the last 23 years, the program has served 4,500 families. Over 2,000 officers have participated, along with 2,500 volunteers. They’ve raised nearly $500,000.
“It really is meaningful. It really is important and it matters,” said St. Paul Police Chief Axel Henry. “It really matters.”
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