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Holidays with heroes: First responders gather for Heroes and Helpers charity shopping event

Bemidji firefighters Elias Hendrickson, right, and Ben Eckstein assist Carlie Hlavac, 7, with her holiday shopping at Target during the Heroes and Helpers shopping program on Tuesday. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)1 / 3
Jason Brunner, 8, shops with Captain Ben Hein of the Bemidji Fire Department during the Heroes and Helpers shopping program on Tuesday at Target. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)2 / 3
Bemidji firefighter Linda Roberts, left, and Paula Vigen of the First City Lions Club help 7-year-old Miley Hoiland pick out Christmas gifts for her mother during the Heroes and Helpers shopping program on Tuesday at Target. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer) 3 / 3

BEMIDJI—In the era of the "personal shopper," 7-year-old Carlie Hlavac has the system licked.

Flanked by two firefighters nearly twice her height, Hlavac meandered around Target on Tuesday, trying to decide the best way to spend her allotted budget of $100. Ben Eckstein, one of the two firefighters, kept a running tally in a notebook of the amount she'd spent so far.

But Eckstein and the other firefighter, Elias Hendrickson, weren't just hanging around because of their accounting skills. They were there to consult Hlavac on all the possible things she could buy. Did she want a My Little Pony set? Perhaps. Would a Hula Hoop make the cut? Maybe not, but all three of them gave it a try, spinning the large hoops around their waists while trying not to knock other items off the shelves.

Hlavac was one of 26 children who descended on the shopping center Tuesday to purchase Christmas gifts for their friends, family, or even themselves. Based on the program "Shop with a Cop," the local version, "Heroes and Helpers," pairs children with first responders for a night of festive Christmas shopping. The program is now in its third year.

"Essentially, it's the same thing, except we wanted to be able to include all the heroes," Bemidji Police Officer Tabatha Carrigan said about how the program compares to Shop with a Cop. "We wanted to include all the heroes of our community."

And there were plenty of heroes to go around. While there may have only been 26 children scouring the shelves, the event included nearly 30 first responders and 30 volunteers from the Bemidji Lions and The First City Lions.

The "heroes" came from the Minnesota State Patrol, the Bemidji Fire Department, the Beltrami County Sheriff's Office and the Bemidji Ambulance Service.

Area organizations donated the funds for each child to shop with. Target then picked up the tab on the sales tax and wrapping supplies.

And then, after each child was paired to a hero, the fun began.

On the other side of the store, 7-year-old Miley Hoiland was shopping with her own set of heroes. And while shopping for her parents, she found a colorful set of earmuffs randomly tucked away on a shelf in the home decor section—and her face lit up.

"I like these!" she exclaimed. "They're adorable."

Jordan Shearer

Jordan Shearer covers crime and social issues for the Bemidji Pioneer. A Rochester native and Bemidji State grad, he previously spent several years in western Nebraska writing for the Keith County News. Follow him on Twitter @Jmanassa

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