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Bemidji first responders help children with holiday shopping in annual 'Heroes and Helpers' program

It’s not every day that uniformed police officers and firefighters team up with school children to search through the aisles of Walmart, picking out toy trucks, doll clothes and scented candles.

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Jasmine Johnson, 9, talks about what she’s shopping for before heading out with Minnesota State Trooper Scott Mattfield during the Heroes and Helpers event on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021, at Walmart. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- It’s not every day that uniformed police officers and firefighters team up with school children to search through the aisles of Walmart, picking out toy trucks, doll clothes and scented candles.

On Wednesday, though, first responders did just that, taking a quick break from fighting fires and enforcing the law to help local students decide how to best spend $100 on gifts for themselves or their loved ones during the annual “Heroes and Helpers” program.

The one-day event, now in its fifth year, is a local take on “Shop with a Cop,” which aims to build positive relationships between youth and law enforcement and helps underprivileged children shop for gifts during the holiday season.

After last year’s event was canceled due to COVID-19, the program was back in full swing with about 30 children in attendance, all chosen by Bemidji Area Schools to participate in the program.

Upon arrival, each child was paired with a first responder or two before taking off, scouring the aisles with their designated heroes in search of the perfect holiday gifts.

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Jackson Susmilch, 8, talks with Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin after shopping at the Heroes and Helpers event on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021, at Walmart. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Volunteer heroes came from the Bemidji Police Department, Bemidji Fire Department, Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office, Bemidji Ambulance Service and Minnesota State Patrol. Between first responders and helpers from the Bemidji Lions Club and First City Lions, there were about 50 volunteers at the event.

Bemidji Police Officer Tabitha Carrigan, who has helped run “Heroes and Helpers” for several years, said the program is funded by many of the local agencies that were represented at the event.

"I fundraise from a lot of the groups that are really involved,” Carrigan said. “That’s currently the Bemidji Eagles, Bemidji Lions, First City Lions, the sheriff’s department federation, the police department federation, the fire department and the ambulance."

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Members of the First City Lions wrap gifts at the Heroes and Helpers event on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021, at Walmart. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

After students were done shopping, the items they picked out were brought to a gift-wrapping station, where volunteers prepared the presents to find new homes under the students’ Christmas trees.

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Once the shopping adventure came to an end, children and first responders were invited to take photos with Santa and Mrs. Claus, and enjoy snacks, coffee and hot chocolate.

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Kahlyla Bedeau-Jack, 6, has her photo taken with Santa and Mrs. Claus at the Heroes and Helpers event on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021, at Walmart. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Hitting the aisles

Hoping to find gifts for everyone in his family, 7-year-old Gozie Stone arrived at the event on a mission. Partnered with two heroes, Bemidji Fire Department Assistant Chief Bruce Hemstad and Bemidji Police Officer Trent Senenfelder, the group grabbed an empty shopping cart and hit the aisles.

When questioned by Hemstad about where Stone might want to start, he didn’t hesitate.

“Well, my mom loves puzzles,” Stone said. “I want to get her a puzzle.”

With some guidance from a Walmart associate, the trio made their way to the back of the store in search of the toy section.

“We’ve got to obey traffic laws,” Senenfelder advised as Hemstad pushed the cart through the aisles.

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Stone carefully analyzed a wall of puzzles for a moment before choosing the right one for his mom. After setting it in the cart, Hemstad reminded Stone that, if he wanted to, he could use some of the allotted $100 to buy something for himself.

Stone liked the sound of that and immediately turned to the other side of the aisle to gaze up at a truck on the very top shelf. Luckily, he had a tall hero with him, and Senenfelder plucked the truck off the shelf with ease.

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Bruce Hemstad, assistant chief at the Bemidji Fire Department, introduces Gozie Stone, 7, to Santa and Mrs. Claus at the Heroes and Helpers event on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021, at Walmart. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

On the opposite end of the store, 9-year-old Jasmine Johnson shopped alongside Minnesota State Trooper Scott Mattfield. A Spiderman bath towel near the end of an aisle caught her eye, and Johnson picked it up excitedly and tossed it in the cart.

“Who is that for?” Mattfield questioned.

“My baby brother,” Johnson said with a smile.

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