Sgt. Marcus Downey and other officers from the Alexandria Police Department in Virginia are braving the winter chill, selling Christmas trees in a gravel parking lot next to Union Station on their day off. When asked why they are volunteering their time, he will tell you a story that tugs hard on the holiday heartstrings.
In 2013, a young boy arrived at Camp Kekoka’s police youth camp summer session, holding a garbage bag full of camping equipment. He was joining his two older brothers at the camp.
After showing the new arrival his cabin, a counselor told him to make up his bed, but the boy stood still, confused by the request. The counselor asked him what was wrong.
“I don’t have a bed at home,” the boy said. “I don’t know what to do.”
The counselor told Downey, president of the camp’s board since 2010, about the young boy.
“It was a moment I’ll never forget,” Downey says.
From Christmas Trees to Camp
These type of interactions keep Alexandria police officers motivated during their annual Christmas fundraiser for Camp Kekoka, a joint partnership between the Alexandria Police Youth Camp and the YMCA, which now runs programming for the camp. The camp was founded 70 years ago by a group of Alexandria police officers who recognized a need to get kids out of the hot city and into the fresh country air to enjoy the outdoors.
About half of the 300 children who attend the camp—located on about 100 acres in Kilmarnock, Virginia—come from Alexandria, about two and a half hours away. For many of them, it’s their first time away from home—and often the first experience they have spending time with police. (About 5 to 10 officers attend the camp during the summer, with more working at the camp during the day.)
The camp costs $500 per week and is open to the public. Although many families pay the full cost, the police department provides scholarships for needy families, partially funded by Christmas tree sales.
Each November, approximately 580 Christmas trees are trucked down from a farm in Indiana, Pennsylvania to a lot in Alexandria. Starting the Saturday after Thanksgiving, volunteer officers and community members work four hours during the week and all weekend long selling the trees. Last year, the sale of the trees generated approximately $20,000 for the camp.
“Camp gives kids an opportunity to see a different side of law enforcement than just arresting people,” says Downey. “It’s also fun for the officers to see kids just being kids.”
‘The Epitome of What Christmas Is About’
In Collinsville, Illinois, Mark Terveer, a school resource police officer, shops for Christmas gifts with kids who have attended their Police and Children Together P.A.C.T summer camp.
During the holidays, each child gets a $100 gift card to buy presents for their family and themselves. Terveer, who has been directing the P.A.C.T summer camp since 2015, spends January through September fundraising for their weeklong-program at Discovery Family Church in Collinsville. Depending on funds raised, approximately 25 kids ranging from ages nine to 13 attend the program, which is entirely staffed by volunteer school resource officers from the six municipalities surrounding Collinsville.
In June, during the weeklong camp session, participants go on excursions to places like nearby Willoughby Heritage Farm and the City Museum in St. Louis, Missouri. Officers continue their relationship with the kids year-round, and accompany kids on an afternoon holiday shopping expedition.
“The looks on their faces when they are buying their items for Christmas and wrapping their presents—you can’t put into words,” Terveer says. “Their joy is the epitome of what Christmas is about.”
Christmas Ornaments for a Cause
At Salvation Army Lake Camp in East Troy, Wisconsin—a weeklong camp specifically for children who’ve lost a police-officer parent in the line of duty—campers make drawings for an annual Christmas-ornament fundraiser.
This July an 8-year-old boy and 12-year-old girl, each of whom lost their father, designed this year’s ornament. The decorations are then sold to support programs for the organization Concerns of Police Officer Survivors (C.O.P.S.). In 2016, the organization raised $41,500 from the sale of the ornaments.
So what ever happened to the boy who didn’t have a bed? Downey and other officers quickly raised $2,400—enough to buy two sets of bunkbeds, sheets, blankets and pillows for the boy, his youngest brother and his two older brothers when they returned home from camp.
And in an added gesture of goodwill, one of the department’s former officers built the family a new kitchen table and chairs so they would have a place to do their homework and eat their meals together as a family.
The boys returned to camp the following summer, and Downey continues to keep in touch with their mother on their progress.
“Camp isn’t just a thing that ends with the summer,” Downey says.