By Jason A. Smith
Evodne Tyler had a smile on her face after eating lunch at the Merle Manders Conference Center Thursday in Stockbridge.
The 11-year-old's joy seem to mirror that of the 85 youngsters who were part of the Shop with a Cop program sponsored by Lodge 95 of the Fraternal Order of Police in Henry County. The children's families -- many of whom police said had had a rough year -- signed the children up for the annual program.
Tyler, the Duthchtown Middle School sixth-grader was nearing the end of a day of shopping with the men and women in blue that netted her three bags of gifts. Among her gifts, were a makeup kit, gloves, a watch, a wallet and a purse.
Wayne Bender, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, and a Henry County police detective, said the program has grown exponentially since it began nine years ago.
"We started with one child," Bender said. While 85 children participated Thursday, he said the number will increase after others, who were unable to attend Thursday's event, are taken out by police to go shopping.
Among the law enforcement personnel shopping with the children, was Henry Police Detective Matt Marlowe. Marlowe said he volunteered because he wanted to do something good at Christmas time.
"It makes you feel good, feel happy, to be around with the kids and help them pick things out for themselves," Marlowe said. "It's one of the most positive things you can do as a member of law enforcement."
When the shopping trip was completed, the children in Marlowe's charge -a nine-year-old named Elizabeth, and a seven-year-old named Autumn - had a Hannah Montana T-shirt, roller shoes and several dolls.
The three shopping companions had their picture taken together, which Elizabeth said she plans to frame and display at home as a reminder of the experience.
"Hopefully, I'll get [Marlowe] again next year, because he was so nice," she said.
Although the detective was glad to see the smiles on the children's faces, he said he prefers not to see the same children at next year's event.
"There's always going to be ... people with bad situations, or people who have had a bad year," he said. "We're only a temporary remedy. I'd hate to see a kid for 18 years, come here every year, because it means their situation is not getting any better."
Still, Bender said the opportunity to take the children shopping is "the highlight of the job," and he hopes the experience will help to change the outlook some children have about the police.
"The reason some kids have that bad outlook is because their parents made a bad decision," he said. "Our only interaction with those kids is on the negative side because of those decisions."
Police hope interacting with the children in a positive way will help to keep the children from making bad decisions of their own.
"If we can change a handful of these kids' outlooks on the police, we've succeeded in changing their lives," said Bender.
Contributions for next year's Shop with a Cop event, which are tax-deductible, can be made by calling Bender at (770) 288-8253.