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Shopping team: Maylee Peat, 8, and Milton Police Officer Ryan Schneider.

2019 marks the second year the Milton Police Department has sponsored “Shop with a Cop,” said Milton Police Chief Scott Marquardt. The opportunity to sponsor the program came after Janesville Police Officer Chad Sullivan, who has applied for grants to sponsor the event in Janesville for the last eight years, found he had multiple available grant opportunities and offered to share, Marquardt said.

The result? Similar to last year, two Shop with a Cop events will be held this year. Fifteen Milton school district students shopped at Walmart in Janesville on Dec. 5, and 24 Janesville school district students will be shopping at Farm and Fleet on Dec. 11. Participants in the program are selected by the Milton and Janesville school districts, both Marquardt and Sullivan said.

Uniformed officers volunteer their time to shop with the students, Marquardt said. This year, law enforcement personnel from Milton, the Rock County Sheriff’s Department, Janesville, Clinton, Evansville, Edgerton and the town of Beloit shopped with the Milton students. Milton officers will shop with Janesville students at Farm and Fleet, he said.

“This program is one of the most rewarding things I get to do as a police officer,” said Sullivan.

Ten years ago, he said, he was introduced to the Shop with a Cop program while attending a conference. He learned about Walmart’s community grant program and applied, he said.

During the first two years of the Janesville program, Walmart granted $2,500 each year, Sullivan said. The money was used to support 12 kids, one from each of Janesville’s elementary schools. Each child received a $200 Walmart gift card, which was used to purchase merchandise from the store. In subsequent years, he said, Walmart granted $5,000 and the program expanded to include two students from each of the district’s elementary schools.

With more kids came a need for more cops, Sullivan said. He reached out to other local law enforcement agencies looking for volunteers. They stepped up, he said, and enthusiasm for the program grew.

Janesville Walmart Assistant Store Manager Noreen Johnson said she has been involved with Janesville’s, and now Milton’s, Shop with a Cop programming for five years. The program is a favorite among Walmart associates, she said.

“One year, we almost didn’t do it because there was an issue with the grant application and I think our associates were the most upset. Most of our associates are parents so they like to be involved,” Johnson said.

Along with the community grant used to fund gift cards for shoppers, Walmart further supplements the program by providing sandwiches and treats, and wrapping paper for kids who buy gifts for family members.

Walmart associates volunteer their time to help with wrapping, Johnson said.

Sullivan said Janesville’s Farm and Fleet became involved with the program after he missed a filing deadline for the Walmart community grant. Concerned about program funding, he said, he reached out to Farm and Fleet, asking for help.

Farm and Fleet joined the project, offering the same grant opportunity as Walmart, Sullivan said, and then, even though he had missed the filing deadline, Walmart approved the grant.

With two available grants, Sullivan said, he saw potential for expanding the program. He reached out to Marquardt to see if he had interest in coordinating a program in Milton.

Marquardt said he was happy for the opportunity. Earlier in his career, while working in Platteville, he had participated in similar programming, and saw, first-hand, its advantages and rewards, he said. He and other officers from Milton had also volunteered their time partnering with Janesville shoppers. This year, Marquardt said, he applied for and received a $3,000 grant from Walmart to support Milton school district shoppers.

In Janesville, Sullivan said, each year, he would ask the school district for alternate student shoppers in case a child selected for participation was unable to attend. That left students each year who were aware of the program, but were unable to participate. He mentioned the alternates to contacts at Blackhawk Community Credit Union, and they chose to expand the program by sponsoring the alternate students, he said.

In Milton, Marquardt said, the Milton Area Chamber of Commerce (MACC), through its Shining Star initiative, has started a similar program, focusing on supplying gifts to siblings of participating Shop with a Cop students.

The program also supplies a boxed holiday meal to the students’ families, MACC Executive Director Dani Stivarius said.

Last year, 15 families were supported through the program. This year, 21 families have been identified, she said.

Sullivan said the Shop with a Cop program was developed to help foster positive relationships between law enforcement personnel and the community.

Said Sullivan: “These grant opportunities allow police officers who are not always seen in a good light in the public or through the media, it’s not always the case, it comes in cycles, but there are negative stereotypes. I’ve been a cop for 23 years, and it was not always like that, but right now, we are in a downward turn, we see it right now in our hiring process, there are less applicants for jobs, so to have the community have positive interactions with a uniformed cop is priceless.

“The Shop with a Cop program, to keep that going is huge. Our officers need this, too. We don’t get a lot of positive interaction with the community, and officers volunteer their time to have a really good experience with kids at Christmastime and that’s incredible.”

In Milton, Milton School District 4k-6 Social Worker Sherry Rautenberg said students were chosen for a variety of reasons, with good behavior and attendance among them.

Before the shopping event, she said, she shared a shopping guide with families, giving the children some basic parameters about gift ideas for other members of their families.

Said Sullivan: “I tell the kids I have one rule: you have to buy something for yourself. I tell them that or otherwise they would buy for everyone else and not themselves. They would buy and donate to the school or the Salvation Army.

“The character that comes out of these kids shows you that kids and people, in, at the time, unfortunate situations, still have incredible hearts and generosity.”

Said Marquardt: “We tell the kids not to buy things like toilet paper or meat on sale. We say: ‘this is about you, and you should have something nice for Christmas.’”

For participating law enforcement personnel, Marquardt said: “This really starts our holiday.”

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