Southern Illinois children celebrate Christmas by shopping with SIU police


Isaiah McCoy, 8, shows SIU police Cpl. Adam Cunico a toy sword he found during Operation Sergeant Santa, a fifth-annual fundraiser organized by SIU’s chapter of Public Relations Student Society of America. Each child paired up with an SIU police officer and PRSSA member to spend the $100 they were given to buy gifts for their families. “I feel like I’ve been fortunate my whole life and I want to give back to the community and these children the best I can,” SIU police Lt. Ryan House said. (Anna Spoerre | @annaspoerre)

By Olivia Spiers

Cameron Carter giggled excitedly as an SIU police officer lowered him into the back of a squad car. He, along with 16 others, said goodbye to their families as they were hauled off by police Wednesday night.

They were not under arrest — just on their way to go Christmas shopping courtesy of Operation Sergeant Santa, a program in its fifth year that raises money for children whose families don’t have much to spend on Christmas presents. 

Desiree Smith and Jamie Dexter, student leaders in SIU’s chapter of Public Relations Student Society of America coordinated with Kohl’s and SIU police to provide kids ages 4 through 10 with a $100 gift card to spend on Christmas presents for their families, as well as themselves.


After having dinner in the Student Center, the children were driven to the department store by their officer in police cars to buy the presents.

“With four kids, finances tend to snowball for us, no pun intended,” said Allison Rogers, of Murphysboro. Her two children participating in the event sat beside her, squirming with excitement as they waited for the police officers to arrive.

The program recently started to include siblings on event nights by providing dinner and crafts, which Rogers’ 20-month-old daughter, Carley, enjoyed as she marveled at a nearby officer’s polished badge.

Meanwhile, Carley’s siblings were concentrating on their shopping lists.

“It’s funny watching the kids figure out what to get their family,” said Smith, a senior from Pleasant Hill studying speech communication, as she served the wide-eyed children pizza. “They get so pumped.”

Dexter, PRSSA vice president and coordinator for the Christmas-themed event, agreed the best part about the event is watching the kids brainstorm for present ideas.

“Even though they are young, [the kids] still understand the gift of giving,” said Dexter, a senior from Watseka studying speech communication. “Sometimes they get so carried away, we have to remind them to buy presents for themselves.”


Though its main purpose is to help children from low-income families buy Christmas presents, the event has a twofold purpose, said Josh Houston, PRSSA’s adviser. 

“[Operation Sergeant Santa] gives officers the opportunity to show a side of police work that gets overlooked,” said Houston, who is also a senior lecturer in SIU’s communication studies department.

Madison Shade, 9, jumps in excitement Wednesday as she finds out she still has a portion of her $100 allotment left to spend during Operation Sergeant Santa. SIU police officer Tyler Harrell and PRSSA member Matt Zitlin helped Shade shop for Christmas. “It’s beautiful to see them want to buy for family members and not just themselves,” Zitlin said.

Before Operation Sergeant Santa — previously known as “Shop with a Cop” — started, students would take kids Christmas shopping for their parents. In 2012, Denise McCleary, the program’s founder, reached out to the SIU Police Department for more help. 

“At first, we included police officers out of tradition, but we soon learned why it works so well,” Houston said. “The respect these kids have for the officers makes this a bigger deal.”

SIU police Lt. Ryan House said he goes to the event every year since McCleary included the department four years ago. He said the selflessness of the children really is beyond their years, and their “excitement is contagious.”

“[Operation Sergeant Santa] allows the community to see us as humans,” House said.

In December 2010, the event was exclusively choosing children of SIU students with the help of the Evergreen Terrace Family Housing after-school program, until it was shut down because of budget cuts, Dexter said.

The students working the event reached out to the Boys & Girls Club of Carbondale, which helped to “broaden its pool of children,” she said. 

That’s how Michelle Carter, a single mother of three who lives in Carbondale, heard of the event. She said the program came as a blessing after a rough year. Her family fell into financial strains after she and her daughter, Leah, had surgery.

“I wish I could have a big Christmas for them, but I can’t just shut off the electricity,” Carter said as she watched her son, Cameron, dart to a police car, yanking an officer with him. “[The program] gives them a larger than life Christmas.”

Staff writer Olivia Spiers can be reached at [email protected], 618-536-3325 or on Twitter @_spierso.

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