After an investigation of a metro Atlanta Shop With A Cop program revealed misuse of funds, Bartow County’s Shop With A Hero opened up about the local campaign’s process.
Started more than seven years ago in Emerson, Shop With a Hero on Dec. 19 will feed 300 elementary-age students and their families breakfast at the Clarence Brown Conference Center before a shopping spree at Wal-Mart.
But, with “one bad apple ruins the bushel” concerns, SWAH officials Stan Bradley and Hollie McKamey addressed fears after an investigation of the DeKalb County Shop With A Cop campaign used donated money for police department purposes.
“I would love for someone to come audit our books because in the seven-plus years we’ve been doing this, we’ve spent about, out of the fund other than on the kids, we’ve spent about $500, and $350 of that was this year, was for that YETI [cooler] we auctioned and made $600,” Bradley said, adding the remaining $150 went to purchase extra orange juice or milk after the breakfast ran short.
A Fox 5 investigation revealed that in 2013, the DeKalb Fraternal Order of the Police spent only $23,000 of $240,000 raised on needy children.
“We want people to know not all programs are like that. ... People that we want to know that even though DeKalb County has their problems, we’re not like that. If you want to donate to us, just know that that money will go to the child,” McKamey said. “We’re not out trying to get $240,000; if we get $50,000, we sigh with relief.
“At $150 per child, that’s $45,000. We allow them to go over around $10, if they need to, which at 300 kids, that’s another $3,000. Bare minimum, we have to have $48,000 in the bank. I like to have at least $50,000 as a buffer, just in case.”
A study of the SWAH books show a balance that, for most of the year, hovers around $16,000. That number jumps this time of year, in the weeks leading up to the December event when fundraising kicks into overdrive.
An evaluation of the checking account since 2012 shows the balance rarely tops $60,000 and the check written to Wal-Mart averages about $46,000.
“We are all in it for the right reasons here. Everybody that is on this committee volunteers their time because they want to help kids, and they show up and they put in the time and they put in the work,” Bradley said.
The “heroes,” bus drivers, school personnel and event entertainment all volunteer their time.
While the number of children needing assistance is higher than the 300 invited to SWAH, the committee does not see the need to increase fundraising or participants just yet.
“We have talked about increasing it because, quite honestly, we probably could do that, and of course, there is that need for it. The reason we haven’t done that in the past is No. 1, logistics. At 300, we are about as many as we can really do at one time; we’d have to break it up into two different sessions,” Bradley said. “The other thing is, we don’t want to overbear our resources within the community. We have a pretty standard group of people we go to for fundraising — a few fall off every year and a few gain every year. The main core fundraising we do comes from the same group of people year after year after year, and if you go out to those people and say, ‘Hey, we need to squeeze you tighter because we want to do more kids,’ then what you are going to do is, you’re going to overbear those resources and eventually they’re going to be like, ‘Look, I’ve done all I can do. I need to take a year off.’
“... That’s what we don’t want to run into. We want to make it where it’s kind of a comfort level for everybody so that we can go back year after year to some of these main donors and don’t feel like we are overburdening them and they don’t feel like they are overburdened.”
Working with the local school systems, Shop With A Hero identifies 300 children in need who are not being helped at the holidays through another avenue, such as a church or nonprofit. Those children receive an invitation to the event, where they are given $150 to spend — $100 on clothing and the remainder on toys or family.
Their jobs allow many of the public safety participants a firsthand look at the need that exists in Bartow County.
“[The need] is hard to put into words if you don’t work in the type of environment that we work in and get out there and see some of these lower-income areas that, of course, as law enforcement officers and public safety, we spend a lot of time in those parts of the community. There is a myriad of reasons these kids are in the positions they’re in,” Bradley said. “... We’ve worked really hard at putting safeguards in place to make sure the parents can’t take advantage of this. They can’t get all the items from Wal-Mart and take it back. We have it worked out with Wal-Mart where it’s programmed in the computer where they can’t return these items, and the only way they can do anything is, if they get something home and it doesn’t fit the child, they can exchange it for a different size but they can’t return it for cash.”
Although McKamey spent years working in the community, she said her current role with D.A.R.E. opened her eyes even further.
“I tell folks all the time, even working in law enforcement, I was not oblivious but I see it more in the school system. Children come in and they’re wearing shoes that don’t fit. ... They’re wearing clothes that they either get from big brother that are just draping off of them, or they’re wearing clothes that are too small because mom and dad can’t afford to go out and buy them new clothes,” she said. “Kids come up to me all the time, especially from last year’s event, ‘Oh, I remember you from Shop With A Hero. I remember you. Thank you for everything you’ve done. We had fun.’ They go on and tell me how excited they were.”
Allowing the children to “see the human side” and “connect” with public safety is a secondary benefit of the program.
“... When I took over as chief, I would ride around the community in a marked patrol car, and when I would go into some of these areas where these kids were that needed this help, the first thing they would do when they’d see a marked patrol car, they’d start yelling, ‘5-0!5-0! Po-po! Po-po!’
They’d take off running, which is absolutely not the type of relationship you want to have with the kids in your community as a law enforcement agency,” Bradley said. “You want these kids to be able to trust you; you want them to be able to look at you as someone in the community who is a leader as a law enforcement officer. By us sitting down, breaking bread with these kids on Saturday morning, talking to these kids, hugging these kids, shopping with these kids, spending money on these kids, they completely see law enforcement officers, firefighters, military, EMS, in a different light than when they are showing up at mom and dad’s house and picking up mom and dad ... or because of a heart attack or dealing with them from a firefighter’s level.
“They’re going to remember that, and they’re going to see there’s going to be times when that kid is 10 years older ... and the same officer or somebody else that was involved with this program had touched them and they are able to connect with them 10 years later because of that. It makes such a big difference in your community when you can do that with the people. I really wish there was ways we could do more throughout the year.”
“It does let them know we are not the bad people, that we are there for them,” McKamey added.
Shop With A Hero will be collecting donations through the event date.
“I think, as adults, if you look back at the magic of Christmas that you remember as a kid, this is that for them,” Bradley said. “.. I think a lot of them, not all of them but a lot of them, this is that magical moment that they experience.”
For more information, visit http://www.shopwithahero.net/ or find it on Facebook at Bartow County Shop with a Hero.