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West Orange Times & Observer Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020 2 months ago

Ocoee, Winter Garden police make holidays merry for local kids

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The Ocoee Police Department and Winter Garden Police Athletic League worked hard to ensure local children in need have a happy holiday season.
by: Danielle Hendrix Associate Editor

The holidays are about to get a little brighter for some children in Ocoee and Winter Garden.

Each year, the Winter Garden Police Athletic League’s Holiday Gifts for Kids program provides Christmas gifts to children in need through both in-kind and financial donations. Similarly, the Ocoee Police Department hosts both a Holiday Toys for Kids in Need program and a Shop with a Cop event.

In Winter Garden, Police Capt. Scott Allen — also the vice president of Winter Garden PAL — said the organization fundraises throughout the year to be able to host its holiday program. Each year, Winter Garden PAL helps more than 100 families and 500 children.

“We go through (applications), and we select the families we believe need it the most,” Allen said. “Once we select them, we start bagging the gifts provided by the community and everything. We let the families give us an idea of what their kids would like for Christmas, and … once we’re done bagging the gifts that have been given to us, we go through the list and identify the things we need to purchase, and then we team up with different stores.”

This year, Winter Garden PAL teamed up with Walmart in Hamlin to complete its big shopping trip Dec. 15. Allen said the store ensures it has the toys needed in stock, and the team sets up two registers for the officers to check out at. In any given year, Allen said, Winter Garden PAL will spend between $10,000 and $20,000 to buy gifts for the families in need. Some also receive Publix vouchers they can use to purchase food for their Christmas meal. 

Allen said the officers will fill a large, 14-foot enclosed trailer — sometimes two or more — with all the toys and bicycles purchased on this shopping trip.

The pandemic has imposed some constraints on the Holiday Gifts for Kids program, Allen said. Typically, Winter Garden PAL provides about 100 bicycles to children in need. Because bicycles have been in such high demand this year, the organization couldn’t find enough to provide.

Then there are the events hosted throughout the year, such as 5Ks and parades, that serve as fundraisers for the program.

“In years past (with) the Christmas parade, part of being in the Christmas parade was to bring an unwrapped toy,” Allen said. “We would have our trailer set up there, and the people who came out to the Christmas parade would fill our trailer with toys. We weren’t able to do that this year because the parade was canceled. … There have been a lot of things making this year different. (With) how many toys we’ve got this year, I know it’ll be a lot more purchase-wise than we’ve had to do in the past because we don’t have these events that we usually get these toys from.”

This year, Ocoee police officers were joined by some Windermere police officers for the Ocoee department’s annual Shop with a Cop event. (Courtesy Ocoee Police Department)

The Ocoee Police Department also has law-enforcement officers who do some serious shopping at Walmart; however, they bring children along with them to pick out their own toys.

On Dec. 12, officers from the Ocoee Police Department — and some from the Windermere Police Department — headed to the Walmart in Ocoee to help make the holidays brighter for 42 local children through Shop with a Cop. The children were selected randomly from those registered for the police department’s Holiday Toys for Kids in Need program.

“Shop with a Cop is a great opportunity for the City of Ocoee Police Department and a community business partner to reach out and positively impact young children during the holiday season,” said Ocoee Police Lt. Jack Davidson. “The Ocoee Walmart donated over $4,000 to the event.”

Shop with a Cop is another way to engage with the community and make a difference in the lives of some of Ocoee’s youngest citizens.

“Events such as these are wonderful ways to positively influence young children,” Davidson said. “Shop with a Cop is truly a wonderful event, and the Ocoee Police Department wishes to thank the officers who volunteer their time and our business partner, Walmart.”

In addition to Shop with a Cop, as of press time, the Ocoee Police Department has been able to help more than 400 children and counting through its toy-drive initiative.

Both organizations said the pandemic has increased the need across the community this year, but local businesses, citizens and community partners continue to step up to help fill in the gap.

“We love how our community participates in our Holiday Toys for Kids in Need Program,” the Ocoee Police Department wrote on its Facebook page. “From donating toys during Operation Santa, donations during Shop with a Cop, business donations and individual family donations, you are why our toy program is so successful. Your generosity means so much more this year as the need is greater.”

Allen said although Winter Garden PAL cannot help everyone in need, the organization does its best to do what it can to make a difference during the holidays.

“We’re just trying to do our best to try and identify those families that need the assistance the most,” he said. “The most rewarding part … is when the kids come and they see they’re getting gifts that they normally wouldn’t get and seeing the smiles on their faces.”

Danielle Hendrix is the Associate Editor for the West Orange Times & Observer and the Windermere Observer. She is a 2015 graduate of the University of Central Florida, from which she earned a bachelor's degree in journalism with a minor in world comparative studies. ...

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