For about 30 minutes, Russie, waited patiently as his mother and a volunteer helped shop for clothes for Christmas.
She found him about eight pair of pants, some shirts, some socks and a couple pair of shoes. When she finished she took a breath and said “OK, Russie. It’s time for the toys.”
Excited, Russell Gibbs, 5, made punching motions in air as if he were Zeus, a video game character, he says.
“Yes! Toys!” he yelled, as he raced over to the toy section of Wal-Mart. Sherece Harrelson, his mother, smiled.
“Slow down,” she said.
Harrelson’s family was one of nine families helped through the Garner Police Department’s “Shop with a Cop,” program. The program, started by Garner Police detective Amy Miller, assists Garner families enduring hardships during the Christmas season.
It was only two months ago that Harrelson didn’t think she’d be able to go Christmas shopping for Russell and her other three sons. She was lying on a bed in the burn center at UNC hospital in Chapel Hill, with second degree burns to her face and arm. The doctor told her she needed to have surgery. Most of her house had burned down, after her kitchen caught on fire.
With her partner of 14 years, Robert Gibbs, and their four sons who are 13, 11, 7 and 5 years old, there was a possibility the family could be separated. Most shelters didn’t take men and boys older than 13.
A bartender and server at Cleveland Draft House on U.S. 70, she’d also be out of work for a while.
What are we going to do now, she thought. Christmas was almost an afterthought.
“All of the money we had saved, we really had to use it for other stuff,” Harrelson said.
However, through help from the school and the “Shop with a Cop” program, the family has been able to have a stable place to live and have the Christmas they always wanted.
She had known about the program from last year. Her family had fallen on hard times then after Robert Gibbs lost his job. When her house burned down this year, they allowed her family to be in the program again.
“Garner has stepped up, the fire department the police department, the schools, it’s just been unbelievable the outpouring of support and people just willing to listen and donate,” Harrelson said. “I never thought any of this was possible in the little city of Garner, and I tell you it’s been so much more of a blessing than I could have ever imagined.”
Last week, high school students interested in law enforcement careers, officers, and their families worked as volunteers, helping shop at Wal-Mart for and with the families in the program. TT&E Iron and Metal donates money for each child to go on a shopping spree with an officer or volunteer.
The program started 11 years ago, while Miller was a school resource officer. Students at her school helped buy presents for underprivileged children each year, through funds from the school. Over the years, she acquired sponsors, including TT&E to help provide money for the program.
Now each year, Miller contacts schools in the area, and asks counselors if they know of any families having trouble during the holidays. The police department throws a party for the children the day before, then goes shopping at Wal-Mart the next day. Wal-Mart provides a 10-percent discount to the families in the program.
Miller said the program has served up to 42 children. This year, the program helped 28 children in need.
Miller said she’s always loved children. She said being raised in a Christian home has influenced her love for helping families in need.
“The other thing is...sometimes with the press, there is some bad light on the police and not just this year,” Miller said. “Some kids, the only thing they see is their dad getting put in a police car sometimes so they don’t get to see that the police are actually helping. So I feel like this gives us a light – we don’t do it just for that, but we are all people too and we have good officers that work here and are kind and want to help people and we want the community to know that.”
Garner Police Chief Brandon Zuidema agreed.
“We do it, because it’s the right thing,” he said. “It’s kind of what the holidays are about and what the Garner community is about.”
Harrelson said her family has been getting on their feet as of late. With the help of a friend they’ve moved into an apartment. Her Christmas shopping is done. She’s getting healthier every day.
She said she plans on volunteering with the program in the future.
“Because this has taken a lot of stress and a lot of worry from me,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about anything now. I can just heal, worry about my rehab. I have no words to describe how this has blessed us as a family.”
Russell wouldn’t stay in the car like his mother kept asking him. He’d stay for a few minutes, then get out, looking at his toys in the trunk and comparing them with his older brothers’ gifts. But his mom wasn’t mad. He was just excited that he’d get to have a Christmas.
“And my boys are happy,” Harrelson said with a smile.