By Jim Newell
It was an evening of heroes and happiness for 110 kids during the Lake Orion Police Department and Friends Shop with a Hero event Dec. 12 at the Auburn Hills Target store.
And while 80 heroes – 16 LOPD officers, Star EMS, DEA and FBI agents, Oakland University Police, Michigan State Troopers, Homeland Security agents and military personnel from the Navy, Army and Marines – attended the event, the real stars of the night were the kids who will have a much merrier Christmas this year.
“The magic and spirit of Christmas was evident in the faces and hearts of everyone. We learned, having gone through this for 11 years now, that it has a different meaning for everybody, but everybody goes home with something positive in their hearts,” said Lake Orion Police Chief Jerry Narsh.
The program is open to elementary-age children whose families may be experiencing financial hardship, but also to kids who have suffered trauma or severe health issues, Narsh said.
Navy veteran Brian Penz, an Orion Twp. resident, attended Shop with a Hero for the first time and says it’s an opportunity to share a special evening with children who need a little extra support.
“First and foremost, it’s the kids. They look up to everyone, the heroes who are here – Navy, Marine, Army, police, fire, medical. It’s a way for us to give back to the community and those around us who don’t have some of the advantages that others have,” Penz said. “I think the most fun for me, since it’s my first year, is going to be seeing what the kids actually pick out for their gifts.”
Kara Hill, a family school coordinator, attend the event to support her students from Orion Oaks Elementary.
“One of my favorite things is just seeing the smiles on their faces; they look forward to this,” Hill said. “Some of them, it was like it was the highlight of their day, they could barely focus on their schoolwork because they were so excited.”
Each child at Shop with a Hero gets $150 gift card to purchase items for themselves. They also get an opportunity to pick out a gift for a sibling who did not attend the event.
Hali’s and Drew’s Books had a table, so kids could pick out a book or two to take home, and Lake Orion students and parents volunteered at the gift wrapping and giving tables. Volunteers from Blanche Sims and Webber elementary schools manned the food counter, handing out pizza to the heroes and kids.
The program began after an Orion resident who had stage four cancer went to Narsh with $3,000 and asked him to help children who wouldn’t otherwise have a Christmas. Eleven years later, that man is cancer-free and still donates every year, Narsh said.
The program has expanded so much since its beginning, that funds to support Shop with a Hero now come from the Lake Orion Police Association, fundraisers and community donations.
In fact, a man in his mid-40s came into the police station this year with a check. “He said, ‘I went through a program like this when I was a child and it changed my life…and I had to come and donate,’” Narsh said. “We are so thankful to our donors and the uniform heroes who make this work. The LOPD couldn’t do this on our own, ever.”
Target donates some gift cards to help with overages at the cash register, and the employees who work the registers and aisles for the event all volunteer their time. “They’re a great group and we’re so grateful for their help,” Narsh said.
Narsh also singled out event co-producer Stacy Blaine from Sister Souls, a nonprofit supporting children’s causes. “She sets up the ground game in the store. I honestly couldn’t do this without her, she’s a huge part of it.”
“It’s just beautiful to see so many people from the community coming together to meet the needs of these kids and give them such a positive experience that they’ll always remember,” Hill said.