12 Kids of Christmas program for children grows to 50 in 4th year of existence

Officer Katrina Welch-Bills helped Javarious Allen find a bicycle while participating in the first
Officer Katrina Welch-Bills helped Javarious Allen find a bicycle while participating in the first "12 Kids of Christmas" program in 2009.

Last year, one little girl bought her family a Christmas ham, a treat she had always wanted but one her family couldn’t afford.

With a Toledo police officer at her side and a Meijer gift card to spend, she got exactly what she was looking for, plus a few gifts for her family and toys for herself.

“She was more proud of the ham than the gifts,” said Sherry Dunn, public information specialist with Lucas County Children Services. “She was carrying that ham around like a baby.”

That girl was one of 30 who participated in the 12 Kids of Christmas, a shopping trip that children selected by the children services agency take with a Toledo police officer to guide them — and help with the math.

This year, the program’s fourth, 50 children from Lucas County will go on the shopping excursion, each with $100 to spend plus $10 to cover sales tax, said Officer Joe Okos, Jr., who started Feet on the Street with his friend Zach Stewart.

“I see a lot of need,” he said. “My job allows me that. I see that need on a daily basis when I'm in a house or stopping somebody or responding to a call. That’s the kind of thing you see, and then with the prices going up and our current economy, yeah, I see that need.

“I come home and see how good we have it,” the officer continued, “and I'm thankful for what we’ve got so I like to take a little extra and give back.”

Feet on the Street is a nonprofit organization, not directly associated with the Toledo Police Department, except that its founder is an officer.

The organization’s continuing mission is to help build positive relationships between the community and police and to provide training for officers.

With the 12 Kids of Christmas, that’s exactly what the organization is doing, Ms. Dunn said.

Many times, the only interaction the children participating in the shopping trip have with police is when they are removed from their parents’ custody.

“It helps them [the police] see our kids in our agency in another light, as well as for the kids to see the officers in a whole other light,” Ms. Dunn said. “They see that they’re people, they’re parents, and they care about this community.”

In addition to the 12 Kids of Christmas, Officer Okos is working with officials from Rosetta Stone, an immersion language-learning software, so officers can learn or brush up on foreign languages, particularly Spanish and Arabic.

For one year of training, the program costs $5,000 and could train at least 20 officers; more could use the software if they are only brushing up on language skills. The organization is raising money for the software, which then would be donated to the department.

“If you teach 10 officers to speak Arabic, how much better can we enforce the law with the large Arabic population that we have?” Officer Okos said. “Instead of forcing them to speak English, it might help them, and it’s going to help our ability to police and have a better understanding of their culture and not accidentally cause offense.”

Feet on the Street is also seeking toy donations for children who live at Moody Manor, a low-income housing complex in central Toledo.

Two toddler girls were wounded, one fatally, in a gang-related shooting there in August while they slept on the floor of their apartment. Keondra Hooks, 1, died; her sister, Leondra Hooks, 2, survived.

“They’ve had a rough year for their kids, to say the least,” Officer Okos said.

Officers in Wood County also are taking children Christmas shopping this year.

Cops and Kids will take 100 children from all over Wood County to Meijer on Dec. 8 for an early-morning shopping trip.

Each of the children, who are selected by school officials, will get $100 to spend, mostly on warm clothing, said Northwood police Sgt. Doug Hubaker.

“It makes the cops feel good,” Sergeant Hubaker said. “You'll get some of the toughest guys you’ve ever met, and they’re just choked up just seeing the kids and how happy they are. I’ve been calling people for the last several days trying to line kids up for the event, and I’ve had at least 10 mothers start crying on the phone and I get a little [choked up].”

Those who want to donate to the Toledo program may write checks to Feet on the Street and send them to the Toledo Police Department, 525 N. Erie St., in care of Officer Joe Okos. Donations to the Wood County program should be sent to Sergeant Doug Hubaker at the Northwood Police Department, 6000 Wales Rd. Make checks out to FOP 109 with “Cops and Kids” on the memo line.

Contact Taylor Dungjen at tdungjen@theblade.com or 419-724-6054, or on Twitter@tdungjen blade.