GREENFIELD — A sense of appreciation hung in the air.
Music played. Children laughed and learned while their parents exchanged handshakes and smiles with men and women in uniform.
Hundreds flocked to the Hancock County 4-H Fairgrounds on Wednesday for an evening of free fun aimed at connecting residents with the public safety officers who serve the county each day.
Story continues below gallery
The second annual Hancock County Community Night was more than twice the size of last year’s inaugural event, with double the number of county public safety agencies turning up to participate and bringing with them activities, sweet treats and other giveaways.
Fire engines, ambulances and squad cars lined the fairground’s midway Wednesday, surrounded by bounce houses and games. Leaders of more than a dozen local nonprofit organizations set up tables to hand out information about their missions and invite interested volunteers to sign up to help. Each child who visited the event walked away with a backpack full of school supplies and was entered in a raffle to win a new bicycle.
But every law enforcement officer who strolled the fairgrounds Wednesday in uniform, playing around and swapping smiles with local kids, wore a black band around their badge or star – a sign of mourning and respect for two Indiana police officers who died late last week.
Greenfield Police Chief Jeff Rasche spent the day paying his respects to fallen Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department Deputy Chief Jim Waters, who died last week from injuries he suffered in a car accident. Later this week, officers from the across the state will attend the funeral of another Hoosier lawman, Southport police Lt. Aaron Allan, who was shot and killed in the line of duty while responding to a car wreck.
Allan and Waters both died on July 27 — a heavy blow to all law enforcement in Indiana. Both deaths drew headlines, and Hoosiers took to social media to express their condolences.
But as Rasche ended his day with his colleagues and friends, surrounded by laughter, music and an overall air of positivity, the recently appointed police chief felt uplifted. He spent the early part of the day surrounded by his brothers and sisters in uniform, taking in a strong sense of community that grows every stronger when the tough gets tougher, he said.
Then he returned to Greenfield for an evening meeting with his friends and neighbors, experiencing the same, important feeling.
“It just proves you don’t need a tragedy to come together,” he said. “You can come together for a positive reason, too.”
Sheriff’s Deputy Ted York, who helped coordinate Wednesday’s event, said those who planned the community night — held in conjunction with National Night Out, a public safety promotional event held across the country — hoped they’d be able to create a positive atmosphere and bring first-responders together with local families.
For many residents, the only time they meet a police officer or firefighter is at the scene of some kind of emergency, where there is little time to create the neighborly camaraderie that is so important, York said. Hopefully, families walk away from Wednesday’s community night having formed connections and memories with first-responders and each other.
Every aspect of community night was free for families who came out to participate, a relief for residents like Christian Waggoner, who said she’s always looking for inexpensive ways to have fun with the kids.
Waggoner brought her two children and goddaughter to Wednesday’s community night to play. Evenings out like this usually carry hefty price tags, but Waggoner said she was thankful first-responders were able to offer families an affordable way to enjoy time together.
Seeing so many youngsters with bright smiles on their faces brought the police and firefighters who hosted the event great joy, Sugar Creek Township Firefighter Tony Bratcher said. These young faces are the future of the county, and some will undoubtedly don the same uniform he proudly wears, he said. What they learn and experience and days like these could affect the community for generations to come.
“There might be a future fire chief out there,” he said, surveying the crowd with a smile.