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Heroic helpers shop with students as part of annual holiday program

Transitioning from fighting fires and crimes on Thursday evening, local first responders were dealt a different challenge — guiding youngsters through Walmart as they searched for holiday gifts.

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Mila Two Crow strolls through the aisle looking for presents during a Heroes and Helpers event on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022, at Walmart.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI — Transitioning out of their usual roles of fighting fires and crimes on Thursday evening, local first responders were dealt a different challenge — guiding a bunch of youngsters through the toy aisles at Walmart as they searched for the perfect holiday gifts.

On Dec. 8, local volunteer heroes from the Bemidji Police Department, Bemidji Fire Department, Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office, Bemidji Ambulance Service and the Minnesota State Patrol had the responsibility of helping local elementary school students decide how to best spend $100 on gifts for themselves or their loved ones as part of the annual “Heroes and Helpers” program.

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Micah Meyers picks out a toy during a Heroes and Helpers event on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022, at Walmart.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

The one-day event, now in its seventh year, is a local twist of “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.

According to Bemidji Police Officer Tabitha Carrigan, who has helped run Heroes and Helpers for several years, an estimated 30 school children were 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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Bemidji Police Officer and event organizer Tabitha Carrigan visits with attendees during a Heroes and Helpers event on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022, at Walmart.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

“I work for the school district and I ask elementary schools here to help me pick the kids (who would best benefit from the event),” Carrigan said. “Each kid is given $100 and they can spend it however they wish. Members of the Bemidji Lions Club and the Bemidji First City Lions either wrap the presents when the kids are done or assist our heroes in shopping.”

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Bemidji Police Officer Gregory Zimbelman was assisting elementary student Waylon May when they came across the skateboards. He remembered his brother loves to skateboard and picked out the perfect one for his Christmas present before moving on to the Fortnite section.

“(I’m buying) a skateboard for my brother so he can play with it in the summer,” Waylon said. “I’m also looking for presents to give to my sister, niece and nephew.”

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Waylon May and Bemidji Police Officer Gregory Zimbelman pick out a skateboard during a Heroes and Helpers event on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022, at Walmart.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

Officer Zimbelman was impressed with the selflessness many of the children had when they were given $100 to spend on whatever they wanted. He said he anticipated them to be more tempted to spend it on themselves, but only after they checked everyone off the list was when they worried about their present.

Upon asking Waylon what he was going to buy for himself, he responded, “I don’t know yet.”

Meanwhile in the Barbie section, first-grader Azaleah Osmundson was on a mission to pick out the perfect dolls for her two sisters — she had to throw one in the cart for herself, too.

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First-grader Azaleah Osmundson strolls through the aisle with Beltrami County Sheriff Ernie Beitel looking for presents during a Heroes and Helpers event on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022, at Walmart.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

After the children were finished carefully selecting their gifts, they then made their way to the Garden Center which was disguised as the “Sparkle Shop” for the evening. All their gifts were then wrapped in the paper of their choosing and even have the opportunity to meet Santa and Mrs. Claus along with snacks and hot chocolate.

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Santa visits with attendees while Mrs. Claus takes a business call with one of the elves during a Heroes and Helpers event on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022, at Walmart.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

Ann Marie Ward with the Bemidji Lions Club was stationed at the checkout line visiting with the littles as they wrapped up their shopping lists. Ward helps coordinate the event on behalf of the Lions Clubs and in collaboration with officer Carrigan, who originally brought up the idea to the club seven years ago.

“We love doing this, everybody says this is one of the best events we do all year,” Ward said. “(It’s important) to further accentuate and appreciate our officers, firefighters and EMTs that serve our community. It gives not only our students but all of us a chance to show appreciation and have positive interactions with these heroes.”

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Ann Marie Ward of the Bemidji Lions Club helps participants check out during a Heroes and Helpers event on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022, at Walmart.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer
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Lions Club members help wrap gifts during a Heroes and Helpers event on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022, at Walmart.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer
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Bemidji Police Officer Tony Olson helps Trey Thomas pick out presents during a Heroes and Helpers event on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022, at Walmart.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer
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Snacks and hot chocolate is served to attendees when they're done shopping for presents during a Heroes and Helpers event on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022, at Walmart.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer
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Lions Club members help wrap gifts during a Heroes and Helpers event on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022, at Walmart.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

Related Topics: WALMARTCHRISTMAS
Maggi is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer focusing on outdoor and human interest stories. Raised in Aitkin, Minnesota, Maggi is a graduate of Bemidji State University's class of 2022 with a degree in Mass Communication.
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