Santa Claus had some help Saturday from scores of law enforcement officers, retail employees, volunteers and family getting gifts to children in need during Operation Take Our Youth Shopping.
Operation TOYS is an annual event which began more than 20 years ago, hosted again this year by the Jefferson City Police Department. JCPD and other local law enforcement agencies collect funds from the community — including individual donors, businesses, civic groups and other organizations — which they then give to Walmart East in Jefferson City.
The store disburses the money onto gift cards children use to shop with as they meander through the toy aisles with a partner in uniform, after the children are driven to the store from JCPD headquarters downtown in patrol cars and other agency vehicles with lights flashing and sirens blaring.
Santa himself made an appearance alongside an elf, after they rode into the store parking lot in an armored SWAT vehicle after the convoy arrived.
Cole County Sheriff's Department Deputy Aaron Roberts and Anthony Wolfe, 9, were on a mission in the store to find what Wolfe really wanted — Nerf guns.
Roberts said he's been a deputy for about four years, but it was his first year doing Operation TOYS. He said it "means the world" to him to be able to help out and share law enforcement's best with people.
Wolfe said the opportunity to have a $150 shopping spree was "like a dream come true."
"If you go over (the dollar limit), I'll take care of you. I've got your back," Roberts told him.
At last sight, Wolfe had a couple big foam-dart guns, a basketball, playground ball, an air pump and some toy cars in his shopping cart.
"A lot of the kids have lists. Some do, some don't," JCPD Capt. Doug Shoemaker said. He added many shop for other family members.
The morning started in a classroom at JCPD headquarters with doughnuts, milk and fruit available, all provided by Walmart East. There were around 85 children signed up to shop, and two of them were De'Elvin Stewart, 9, and Delyn Smith, 6.
Stewart said he and Smith like Minecraft, and Smith showed his wish list that included Transformers and Ninjago toys, along with a remote-controlled car.
Other items in passing children's shopping carts later included board games, dolls, "Star Wars" toys, dinosaurs, a skateboard and Hot Wheels.
"It's just heartwarming. I like to see smiles on kids' faces," Leanne Drury said. She is the hardware and paint department manager at Walmart East, and Saturday marked the fifth year she's been in charge of Operation TOYS. She was pretty sure Saturday's operation had the most children that had ever taken part in the event.
Lincoln University Police Department Lt. Damon Nunn said a lot of people may not have smiles this time of year due to of economic hardships or incarcerated family members, but Operation TOYS is a "way for me to give back to the community that I serve" it also shows people the positive side of law enforcement.
Though he wasn't paired with a child Saturday, Nunn said he's been doing Operation TOYS just about every year since he started working for LUPD seven years ago. He was out to support fellow officers who were taking youth shopping.
Drury added about 30 store associates and family were helping with the event, and store employees, Elks Lodge 513 members and family members helped wrap gifts once children and their partners checked out with their purchases.
Along with JCPD, LUPD and the Cole County Sheriff's Department, officers from the Missouri Highway Patrol, Capitol Police and Department of Corrections also took part in Operation TOYS.
Children also received a small gift bag from Walmart, as well as snacks provided by vendors.