Alaura Walker could barely contain her excitement when Newton Police Officer Katie Price showed up at her apartment door bearing gifts. You see, this was no ordinary house call; rather, Price was making the rounds as part of the Newton Police Department's Operation Blue Christmas — delivering presents to children and families in need around Newton (and Harvey County).
Immediately, with her mother looking on, Walker began unwrapping the gifts — which Price noted she had personally helped pick out — tearing though the final package (a new backpack) in sheer joy with the help of her friend, Morgan McCoy.
That, in a nutshell, is what Operation Blue Christmas seeks to provide, according to Cpl. DeAnna Mowery.
"It's a program that we've designed to get some toys and different things that are needed for kids in the community; families who are trying and just can't quite make it or underprivileged families that are in the community that we see," Mowery said. "It's basically an opportunity for officers to give back to the community that supports us."
Mowery said she tries to start getting nominations for families, which often come from officers on the street and school resource officers, after Thanksgiving. Then, after the families are selected and wish lists are formed — targeting both needs and wants of the kids — the gifts are purchased (the majority by NPD officers), wrapped and delivered either the week of or, like this year, prior to Christmas.
For 2017, the third year of Operation Blue Christmas, 18 families — including a total of 52 kids — were selected to receive gifts, which Mowery noted was a slight increase from last year. No matter the numbers, the officers involved are more than happy to be a part of the holiday initiative.
"It almost makes you very giddy. When it was all said and done Wednesday morning, I literally just sat down in the conference room where we wrapped it all because it was kind of a relief, you know, but it's also very overwhelming that we got to help 52 kids," Price said. "It's just awesome. It's very, very, very rewarding. It's very worth it."
"Service is a really big part of our job and it's a really big part of my personal life, so I take it upon myself to make sure that everything is organized and taken care of," Mowery said, "but really the officers who are here donating gifts and helping me wrap to all hours of the night are the ones who are really dedicated and the ones who really believe in the program."
On top of the gift giving through Operation Blue Christmas, the NPD also participated in the First Responders Holiday Helpers food drive started this year through the joint efforts of Newton High School resource officer Gary Littlejohn and Captain Mark Scheffler of the Harvey County Sheriff's Office reserves.
All families who were selected for Operation Blue Christmas received two boxes of food — $80 of non-perishable items, an approximation of two weeks' worth of groceries — from the First Responders Holiday Helpers as well, though that was just a drop in the bucket in regards to the total reach of the food drive.
Building off of efforts Littlejohn started last year, helping 36 families in Newton, the first responders' food drive raised more than $13,000 in its first year and was able to provide for 210 families (exceeding the initial goal of 150) across Harvey County.
"It was overwhelming how much people were willing to help by donating or whatever they could do to help out our cause of helping families get food for Christmas," Littlejohn said. "It was a very big surprise and very humbling that other people were willing to help."
Growing up, Littlejohn said his family had experienced some of those struggles over the holiday season. Once he got into the schools and saw first-hand the number of students on free-and-reduced lunches, he felt compelled to do something — a sentiment Mowery shared in regards to Operation Blue Christmas as well.
"For some reason, it pretty much tugged at my heart, and so I kind of looked into it some more and decided, you know what, maybe I can help a few families out this year," Littlejohn said.
"It's just really important to recognize the needs of our own community and be able to do something about it," Mowery said. "It's a pretty rewarding feeling seeing the smiles on the kids' faces or the mom who's really trying her hardest to make it work and just can't. To be able to relive some of the stress is really important. We've all been in situations where we just needed a little bit of help, so to be able to provide that help is a real rewarding experience."