Teisha Guillen beamed as her 3-year-old daughter picked out whatever toy she wanted at Kmart on Sunday.
Guillen's daughter, Karla, led her mom and family and Maui Police Lt. Jeraul Pladera around the Kahului store in the annual Shop with a Cop event. Maui officers are paired up with a child in the charity event that lets children pick out gifts for themselves and/or their families with the help of Maui's finest. For the police, it's chance to be seen by the public in a different light than authoritative enforcers of the law.
Three-year-old Karla Guillen moves on to select another toy at Kmart on Sunday morning. She was being assisted by Maui Police Lt. Jeraul Pladera (behind Guillen) and Pladera’s son, 7-year-old Jaden, in the annual Shop with a Cop event.
The Maui News / MELISSA TANJI photo
Police Officer Dennis Clifton of the community relations section assists 5-year-old Olomana DeFreitas at Kmart.
The Maui News / MELISSA TANJI photo
"This year we can't have really anything for the kids," said Teisha Guillen, a stay-at-home mother.
The economy stressed her family; her husband doesn't have a full-time job anymore and only works several side jobs.
She said the Sunday event helped the family with the holidays.
Little Karla was among 50 children who took part in the Sunday morning program organized by the Kiwanis Club of South Maui and sponsored by Kmart, other businesses, including technology company Akimeka. and the Kiwanis Club of Kahului.
A majority of the children are clients of Maui Family Support Services, where children receive assistance with early childhood education and parents and guardians receive help with raising their children. The program also gives assistance to grandparents who are raising their grandchildren, as well as to fathers who live in a different home from their children.
Daphne Ladia, administrative coordinator of the nonprofit organization, called the event "awesome" and said her organization is happy that the Kiwanians selected it again to be the recipients of the program.
For the children, the $85 gift card they each received was a gold mine for themselves and their families.
Ladia said that many of her clients are from low-income households. At this time of year, many families may skimp on food or out of paying bills in order to make sure their children have presents.
"They are putting their households in jeopardy because they want to provide for their kids," she said. "It relieves a lot of stress on the parents."
Matt Granger, vice president of operations and chief technology officer at Akimeka, said its local boy founder and CEO, Vaughn Vasconcellos, believes in "giving back to the community."
"This is one of the small ways we can," Granger said as he surveyed the crowd of children and police officers before the shopping started.
"It is a feel-good project," said Adele Rugg of the Kiwanis Club of South Maui, which was lead organizer of the event. "It's all about the children."
Rugg estimated the event costs more than several thousand dollars to put on and said she is happy that her club and other sponsors have been able to stage it for six years.
Pladera was enjoying shopping with Karla, who kept him on his toes as she moved from one toy to the next and from aisle to aisle picking out what she wanted.
Pladera was pleased to help out and help the community positively.
He brought his son Jaden to help and to learn about the spirit of Christmas.
"The lesson is to give; not receive," Pladera said.
Officer Denis Cabacungan repeated the same motto, saying that he and his mother believed "we've got to give back."
Cabacungan, who also is an officer with the DARE or Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, said he'll get involved with anything that helps children.
On Sunday, he was shopping with 5-year-old Nadia Jones and her brother, 9-year-old Tyler Pinheiro. In addition to toys, they were shopping for toothbrushes and body wash.
Kmart Human Resources Manager Cheryl Calvan was pleased to see children not only picking up toys but essentials like the toothbrushes and clothes.
She said many of her employees woke up early and some came in on their days off to serve the families breakfast, decorate shopping carts with tinsel and play Santa's helpers or dress up like elves.
The children also got an age-appropriate present from Santa courtesy of Kmart before their shopping spree.
Some police officers dipped into their pockets when some children found out they were over budget at check out.
About 30 officers including recruits volunteered their time Sunday.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.