Layla Cummings knew exactly what she wanted the second she stepped into Walmart on Thursday. Her eyes darted to a Barbie playset that is as tall as she is, and her feet quickly followed.
A member of the Palatka Fire Department helped her load the toy into her shopping cart, and within 30 minutes, the cart was filled to the brim.
This was all part of an annual program the fire department started last year. This year, Fire Chief J.R. Grimes and other members of the department picked up Layla and Stantoneo Archibald, Kelley Smith Elementary students, and took them to Walmart for an hour of Christmas present shopping.
Fire officials arrived at the school in the departments’ newest fire engine, surprising children in the school’s lobby before giving them their own plastic fire hats and loading them into the engine.
Layla and Stantoneo beamed with joy as they strapped into the engine’s backseat and traveled to Walmart. When they got there, each child split up and joined firefighters on their search for Christmas toys.
“This is a lifetime memory for these kids,” principal Tracy Taylor said. “It will be a memory forever.”
Stantoneo walked down each toy aisle in awe as he picked out which action figures and games he wanted. Near the end of the shopping trip, firefighters helped Stantoneo pick out a bike and helped him give it a test ride in the aisles.
Kelley Smith counselor Cynthia David said this was a day she doesn’t think Stantoneo will ever forget, and Stantoneo smile as he thanked each firefighter made David’s point obvious.
“I think he will walk around with, ‘Wow, did that just happen?’ I think for him, it is almost surreal,” David said. “It is just so far out of the realm of what he has ever known.”
The fire department bought more than $350 worth of toys for each child by the time the shopping was done. Grimes said this was a program brought to his attention by some of his employees, and he thinks it has been a major success so far.
“I think it is just a great program. It was not my idea; these guys came up to me and said let’s do something,” Grimes said. “This is all fund-raised dollars. It is not a budget line item. This is just people in our community giving back to these kids.”
Firefighter Robert Mohr is one of the men who brought the idea to Grimes last year. He said being able to see the looks on the kids’ faces was rewarding beyond belief, and he owed a thank you to David and Taylor.
“This is only the second year we’ve done it. Last year I went up to the principal at Moseley Elementary and they helped me out to find some kids,” Mohr said. “And the staff at Kelley Smith helped out more than I could ask for, in terms of putting things together.”
David said Layla and Stantoneo were chosen by the school to participate in the program based on need, and their exemplary behavior and effort in the classroom.
Grimes said he is such a fan of the program and has hopes it can grow in upcoming years as they let each local elementary school participate.
“We are going to take it as far as it’ll go. The more we give in, the more we’re going to do,” he said. “This is just a great day for these kids. It is a great opportunity for the school. And it makes you know that the good kids are still here.”