Children jumped, bounced and laughed early Saturday morning as they waited to go to Walmart to visit with Santa Claus and go shopping.
"We are up to 100 kids and they are excited," said Les Martin, a 20-year school resource officer with the Jefferson City Police Department.
"Excited" is understating it. The energy the children produced could have powered a city.
Martin, one of the organizers of Operation Take Our Youth Shopping (TOYS), said each child was to receive a $150 gift card from St. Nicholas, with which they could go Christmas shopping. In the program, the department partners with eight other agencies to provide Christmas for underprivileged children from the area. This was the 29th year for Operation TOYS in Jefferson City.
The 100 children were paired up with officers from the Cole County Sheriff's Office, the Missouri Highway Patrol, Algoa Correctional Center, Jefferson City Correctional Center, Tipton Correctional Center, and Jefferson City, Lincoln University, Holts Summit and Missouri Capitol police departments.
After an early-morning breakfast at Lincoln University's Jason Gym, the officers and their charges climbed in police vehicles for a parade to Walmart Supercenter, at 401 Supercenter Drive. With lights flashing and sirens blaring, about 60 patrol cars, SUVs, pickups and buses snaked their way to the store.
After all the children arrived, so did Santa — aboard a large black SWAT vehicle.
The store had rearranged its lawn and garden section to accommodate the massive influx of children. From there, they and their officers took shopping carts to the toys section of the store, which had been roped off to allow the officers and children to shop without interference.
Leanne Drury, a Walmart department manager who usually works in paint and hardware, said she's been involved with the program for six years. She said 25-30 store associates volunteered to help as "elves," who could assist the shoppers with finding what they need, checking them out or doing whatever else was necessary for the event.
Elks Club members volunteered to wrap gifts, she said, in case the children bought something for a friend or family member — or even if they wanted their own gifts wrapped.
"We just like to see all the smiling faces," Drury said.
The police department gets names from area school counselors and principals, Martin said. Each department raises $75 for each child they'll represent. Nonprofits and donors make up the difference.
Hope Dale has two sons who were chosen to participate in the event — Malcolm, 9, and Marcus, 7.
Dale, who works at The Timbers Assisted Living, said it was a surprise to her when an officer called.
"I got a call at work," she said. "I thought something was very wrong. Then they explained it, and I thought, OK."
Even before leaving for Walmart, while still at the Lincoln University Campus on Saturday morning, Marcus said he was having fun.
"We're going to Walmart! We're going to get toys!" he exclaimed before running off.
Kara Vaughn took her son Kayden Hall, 6, to the event.
Kayden said he didn't have any idea what he'd buy with his gift card.
"It's been a long time since I've been to Walmart," he explained as he held his mother's hand and spun, twirled and fidgeted.
Vaughan said the gifts will be especially appreciated this year.
"It's been a rough year," she said. "My car broke down, and I started a new job. I had to find a way to get to work. And (Kayden) has three brothers and sisters, so this just helps out a lot."