EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was edited on Dec. 12, 2017 correctly site that the annual Shop with a Hero event was not partially funded by donations from the Advanced Medical Transport union as AMT does not have a union. 

In the spirit of Christmas, police officers, firefighters and more came together this past weekend to give a special shopping experience to children in need who are looking to give back to others.

Saturday afternoon, about 60 local children had an opportunity to shop with a Pekin police officer, firefighter or Advanced Medical Transport medic for the annual Shop with a Hero event organized by the Pekin Police Department. The Pekin Police Department raises money each year for the program. Donations from the Pekin Police Officers’ Union, the Pekin Fire Department union, local businesses and individuals make the event possible. This year’s event was held at Big R department store in Pekin.

“We do this every year for kids who might not have a very good Christmas to look forward to,” said Billie Ingels, Public Information Officer for the Pekin Police Department and this year’s Shop With a Hero coordinator. “Their families might be having financial issues, or they may have suffered some sort of traumatic incident over the course of the year. Local school, police, firefighters and AMTs submit the names of kids we should invite. When we have enough donations, we decide how many kids can go through the event.”

Between fundraising efforts and donations from businesses and private contributors, funds for the event came to about $6,000. Each child participating in the event received a $100 Big R gift card, as well as a shopping companion for the afternoon. For participants who needed a break from shopping, event sponsors provided pizza, a gift-wrapping station and a chance to visit with Santa Claus.

“It’s important to do this, because it gives us an opportunity to connect with our community in a positive manner,” said Pekin police chief John Dossey. “Not all of our connections with the community in our day-to-day job of law enforcement are positive ones. It’s important to reach out to people in need, especially this time of year, and show them we’re here to make a difference in our community. I’m proud to be part of the Shop With a Hero program, and I enjoy the chance to interact with kids in a fun way. What’s more fun than Christmas?”

“I’m excited about this because I’m getting help shopping for my family,” said Mason Butler, 9, of Pekin, a recipient of one of the provided gift cards. “I won’t say what I’m planning to buy or for whom, because Christmas presents are supposed to be a surprise. I’m hoping the person I shop with will be a paramedic.”

In addition to having an opportunity to shop with a local hero, children participating in the event had an opportunity to connect with the dogs and cats brought to the store by volunteers from the newly-formed Tazewell Animal Improvement of Life Society (TAILS). The non-profit organization, formed in April, works closely with Tazewell County Animal Control and local animal rescue groups.

“This is one of our Christmas adoption events,” said TAILS president Shannon Seiss. “We came to Big R because we knew the Shop With a Hero event was here, so we knew we would get a lot of people going in and out. Our goal is get all of our kittens and cats homes for Christmas, so we brought in the ones that are ready for adoption.”