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'Shop With a Cop' brightens season for unfortunate children

| Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2010

Erin Allison wanted shoes — two pairs in green and one blue — to go with the Tinkerbell dresses she had just picked out.

So when state police Cpl. Robert Stauffer showed her a pair of green Tinkerbell slippers, the little girl who lost her mother and sister less than a month ago beamed.

Stauffer pulled off her pink snow boot and placed the packaged slippers up against her foot to make sure they'd fit, like Prince Charming testing the glass slipper on Cinderella.

"These are exactly what I'm looking for," said 4 1/2-year-old Erin before turning her attention to the next task. "We have to get blue ones, officer."

In this week leading up to Christmas, more than 120 children in Westmoreland County who are victims of crimes or unfortunate circumstances are getting a chance to "Shop With A Cop" to make the holidays a little brighter.

Organized by state Trooper Stephen Limani, public information officer for the Greensburg station, the event is providing each child with a $100 shopping spree at Wal-Mart.

On Mondays, kids shopped with officers at the East Huntingdon and Unity Wal-Marts, with shopping trips scheduled later in the week at the Hempfield and Delmont stores.

Officers from 28 area police departments are participating in this second annual event.

Last year was the first year local troopers got involved with the program and five Wal-Mart stores throughout Westmoreland County gave $200 each, giving the Greensburg barracks the bulk of the money needed to take 34 needy kids shopping with a $50 spending limit.

Limani said a golf outing in the fall that generated $13,000, coupled with the generosity of Wal-Mart — each location donated $1,000 — and other donors, enabled the program to expand this year.

"The public has been so generous, and the amount we have available is way past what I thought would happen," Limani said. "I was hoping for $10,000 so we could take 100 kids shopping with a $100 spending limit."

Bob Mathers, store manager at the East Huntingdon Wal-Mart, said store officials work with Limani during the year to do events to raise money for the program.

"The shopping is for kids who aren't expected to get a lot for Christmas," he said. "Along with the things they shop for, we also make sure each child leaves with a coat and hat and gloves."

Children are recommended to the program by police departments, the Westmoreland County Children's Bureau and local schools.

Jennifer Weaver's son, Christopher Newhouse, 10, of Latrobe, left Wal-Mart with a new bike and a remote control monster truck. They're hoping to leave behind memories of Christopher's alleged beating at the hands of his babysitter earlier this year.

Weaver said Trooper Eric Mumau's suggestion that Christopher participate in the event "kind of gave him something to look forward to."

"Out of every tragedy, something good comes out of it," she said.

Mary Gooden, 33, of Derry said the event gave her children, Micah, 8, and Selena, 7, a chance to see police officers in a different light.

Gooden, who said she was a victim of domestic violence at the hands of her ex-husband, said her children deserve a happy Christmas after many difficult years.

"It helps them trust the cops," she said. "For what they've been through, they had the cops in and out of their lives in bad situations."

The officers said they enjoyed the day, too.

"To see their smiles light up to get something they wanted, I'm just happy to be a part," said Trooper Judson Shephard.

Patty Kovac of New Derry said it was nice to see her granddaughter Erin enjoying a day out shopping. The days have been dark and difficult since Nov. 21 when Erin's mother, Holly Allison, 28, who was seven months pregnant, and her 13-month-old sister, Morgan, died in a single-vehicle accident Nov. 21 in Shade Township in Somerset County.

"She knows her mom's up in heaven, and Morgan's up in heaven, but some days, she doesn't (understand)," Kovac said.

Erin told her Nana to stay behind while she went shopping with Stauffer.

"She's so excited to shop," Kovac said. "It brightens (Christmas) up a little bit."

As Stauffer pushed Erin through the store in a cart, his wife, Bonnie, took pictures and helped in the search for fairy tale toys and dresses. The Stauffers donated their time and money to the program.

They even pulled money out of their pockets to buy Erin everything she wanted yesterday — including her special shoes.

Robert Stauffer showed Erin a pair of silver ballet slippers that would match her blue dress.

"These don't look like the pair I'm looking for, but we can try them on to see if they fit," Erin said.

They did, but she still wanted a blue pair.

"How about if we get those, and I take them and get them dyed blue for you?" he asked.

After all, that's what Prince Charmings are for.

Rachel Basinger contributed to this report.

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