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This year was a milestone for the Shop With a Cop program. It’s been 25 years since the program first began and it has grown each year — making it the largest in the country.

Each year hundreds of children are treated to a free shopping spree called “Shop With a Cop” — a service of the St. Francois County Sheriff’s Department via St. Francois County Sheriff's Association Shop with a Cop organization.

There were more than 100 men and women in uniform from the St. Francois County Sheriff’s Department, Missouri State Highway Patrol, Missouri Department of Corrections, Missouri Department of Conservation, the 911 Communications Center, EMS, area fire departments, recruits from the Mineral Area College Law Enforcement Academy and various police municipalities from around the county.

Each child was treated to $100 shopping trip (tax-free) and at the end of the day, the St. Francois County Shop With a Cop organization wrote a check to the store for approximately $42,700.

Each year the program affects hundreds of children, teaching them that police officers are people they can go to for help and that they are regular people, just like them. That is a lesson one young man learned when he was 7 years old and he is now giving back to kids who are very much like him.

Farmington Police Officer Jeff Kostedt was happily walking kids around shopping at Farmington Walmart Friday morning during the Shop With a Cop program. He escorted each child with patience and care, knowing what it was like to be in their shoes.

“I am paying it forward, just trying to give back what was given to me when I was younger,” said Kostedt. “This program more or less made me want to become a police officer, so I feel like it’s important to be here. I enjoy watching the kids’ faces light up. It’s a rare occasion for them.”

Kostedt said most of the kids don’t get the chance to do something like this or have this much money to spend on themselves.

“I was actually afraid of police officers, which is kind of ironic,” said Kostedt. “Even though I was afraid of them, I realized they were just humans like me and were there to help me — not hurt me or take me to jail.”

Kostedt said being able to be part of something so big like this was awesome. He said it’s something he couldn’t really describe.

“Knowing that the first kid I took shopping was 7 and knowing that’s how old I was whenever I went shopping, it’s really emotional,” said Kostedt. “I told him that when I was his age, I was doing the same thing as him — being taken by an officer shopping. Words can’t describe how this makes you feel. It’s such an awesome feeling. Especially to see how happy they are because of the program.”

Kostedt said this is for them to learn they can be whatever they want and achieve their goals in life. He stressed he just wants to motivate the kids and encourage them.

Shop With a Cop Coordinator Lora Henson said this was another successful year for the program. She believes they will hit their goal of helping more than 500 kids again this year.

“We had a great turnout of officers. And for a lot of the officers here, it is their first time because they are in the academy,” said Henson. “It’s nice to see them out. We have had officers out from all over. We had a good turnout.”

Henson added that she saw a lot of happy kids coming through and there were a lot of bikes, soccer balls being bought this year.

“We did have the soccer team down from St. Louis to watch and help out with the event for their second year,” said Henson. “I want to thank everyone. With this being our 25th year, it’s going really great. Without the support of the community, and the sheriff especially, none of this would be possible.”

Henson said this is something they work on all year long and without St. Francois County Sheriff Dan Bullock’s support and backing, none of it would be possible.

“We will have next week’s makeup day at Desloge Walmart on Tuesday and then we will start working on the annual Easter egg hunt,” said Henson. “It is never ending, but after you see the look on the kids’ faces, it’s well worth it.”

Henson added that she is more than happy to help anyone start off their own Shop With a Cop program. She said the city of Ferguson started theirs two years ago and had 60 kids participate on Wednesday. She described their turnout as "an awesome start."

Bullock said the morning went really well, with the kids having a great time and smiling. He added that the officers seemed to be having more fun than the kids.

“We have a lot of happy kids and officers,” said Bullock. “We have had a lot of patrons coming into Walmart who had no idea this was going on and had they known, they would have come another day.”

Bullock said they had a wide range of officers out and there were private citizens who also came out to help.

“I want to thank the citizens of St. Francois County and the area businesses," he said. "Without them this wouldn’t have been possible.”

Shop With a Cop will hold its makeup day at 1 p.m. Thursday at the Desloge Walmart for kids who weren't able to make it to the first one.

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Renee Bronaugh is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-518-3617 or rbronaugh@dailyjournalonline.com

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