GREENFIELD — Jacob Sweet still remembers the excitement he felt.
He was a third-grader at Harris Elementary School in Greenfield. His parents were going through a divorce at the time, and money was tight that year. But those worries all seemed to wash away as he headed into Walmart with a police officer by his side and the promise of Christmas presents ringing in his ears.
Now, two decades later, Sweet is an officer in the Hancock County Jail, and on Saturday, he paid that good deed forward to another youngster in need of some holiday cheer.
Story continues below gallery
Sweet was one of more than two dozen members of the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department who took about 30 needy children shopping for Christmas Saturday at the Greenfield Walmart for the department’s annual Shop with a Deputy program.
Sunday, another 30 kids got the chance to rummage the store with Greenfield Police Department officers during the city’s annual Cops-4-Kids program. A handful of State Police troopers tagged along during both shopping sprees, as well as many officers’ family members, who volunteered to lend an extra hand.
Children had their run of the clothing, toy and shoe departments to spend about $300 each — money donated to both programs throughout the year, officials said.
Sweet meandered around the store Saturday morning with 9-year-old Bradley Chambers. He smiled as he watched Bradley, a motivated glimmer in his eye, weave in and out of the racks of clothing, selecting T-shirts, belts and blue jeans before taking off for the toy aisle in search of Pokémon cards.
Sweet can remember that eagerness vividly, he said.
For three years some 20 years ago, he and his siblings participated in the sheriff’s department’s charity program. The officers made sure they each had a new coat and boots for the winter and everyone took home a few toys to play with, he said.
When Sweet became a jail officer two years ago, one of the first questions he asked was how to become involved with the Shop with a Deputy program, said Jail Sgt. Missy Wilcher, who helped organize this year’s shopping spree. His excitement about having the chance to participate again, this time on the other side of the shopping cart, mirrored that of the children, she said.
Being able to relate to the children the program helps makes the experience even more worthwhile, Sweet said.
He can remember feeling a little embarrassed about his family needing to reach out for help at the holidays, he admits. Now, however, he looks back on that time with gratitude and recognizes the experience instilled in him a desire to give back to his community, he said.
His job inside the jail isn’t glamorous most of the time, he said, but every once in a while, he’ll see a little bit of himself in a kid who comes into the facility after making a mistake.
Sweet said he always takes a moment to chat with those kids, to offer a word of encouragement, hoping his kindness will make an impact in some way.
Many of the officers who participate in the annual shopping programs say they hope, too, that the few hours they spend with these kids in need for one morning in December will bring joyful memories that will last a lifetime.
Sunday morning after a quick breakfast at the McDonald’s restaurant on State Street, Greenfield officers, each paired with a youngster, took over Walmart.
Police Chief John Jester, who earlier this year announced his retirement from the department, watched it all unfold, with a gleeful smile on his face.
Though he’s left his daily duties at the police department behind, Jester remains the chief through the end of the year. Tagging along with his team of officers as they shopped with the kids and seeing the smiles that spread wide over every face might be what he misses most about overseeing the department, he said.
“I don’t know who loves this more, the cops or the kids,” Jester said.