SAN JOSE — For a couple of hours Wednesday, the Target store on Coleman Avenue was arguably the safest place in the South Bay when over 200 elementary school students each got their own police escorts for a holiday shopping spree, as a reward for improving their reading skills over the past fall.
It marked the 12th annual signature event for Shop With a Cop Silicon Valley, which spends every year fundraising and motivating students in under-served communities in the South Bay, and aims to build early trust police among children in neighborhoods where the typical police presence involves critical or violent encounters.
“The first time kids see a police officer, it should not be in a moment of crisis,” San Jose police Chief Eddie Garcia said. “Some of these kids come from areas where when law enforcement is there, it’s not for a positive reason. This (event) is great for all of us. I’m not sure who has more fun today, them or us.”
The students, who hailed from Los Arboles Literacy & Technology Academy, as well as Arbuckle, Gardner, K.R. Smith, and Santee elementary schools, were given $175 gift cards to spend Wednesday. They were cheered on by scores of police officers from throughout the Bay Area, as well as sports mascots like the San Francisco 49ers’ prospector Sourdough Sam, the San Jose Giants’ orange gorilla Gigante, and the San Jose Earthquakes’ Q, a blue humanoid creature of indeterminate origin.
Darrell Cortez, a retired veteran SJPD officer and executive director of the local Shop With a Cop program, said the number of children rewarded this year was the most ever. And like it does every year, the program also reached out to children affected by traumatic events from past year, hosting relatives of victims from the Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting massacre in July.
“Events like this leave an indelible image on the children,” Cortez said.
While many students headed straight for toys and electronics, they also were conscientious about buying gifts for their families. Redwood City police Sgt. Diana Villegas has participated in the program for several years and noted that some of the kids, owing to their stretched households, trend toward practical needs over indulgences.
“They get shoes, clothes, things for their parents,” Villegas said. “I was once with a student who got work socks for his father. It really puts things in perspective.”
Isabella Moniz, 8, a Los Arboles student, said she worked so intently on her reading goals that she couldn’t remember the sheer volume of the work she did. And when it came time to fill her cart, she thought of everyone at home.
“I got stuff for my family,” she said. “So that I can make them happy.”
Moniz said Wednesday’s event was her first significant interaction with someone in law enforcement, in this case Alexa Wetmore, a crime analyst for Milpitas police.
“I liked it a lot,” she said, while smiling at Wetmore.
Those interested in volunteering, participating, or donating to Shop With a Cop Silicon Valley can go to shopwithacopsv.com; check donations payable to Shop With a Cop Foundation SV can be mailed to P.O. Box 8003, San Jose, CA 95155.