Posted by: Jennifer Foley Posted date: April 5, 2016
— By Jennifer Foley, POJ Editor
Residents of Allegan County might have been wondering why most of the Sheriff’s Deputies in their community were walking around with goatees in November and December 2015. The goal was to draw awareness and raise funds for Cops for Christmas.
Every Deputy who participated in the Goatee Challenge contributed $40 to Cops for Christmas, which provides Christmas gifts to area needy families.
Allegan County Deputy Joe Knapp started the program 15 years ago with the help of his former partner, Sheriff’s Detective Craig Gardiner. “My partner and I worked Lee Township and that’s a high poverty area — Bloomingdale School District,” Knapp said. “We saw a need and wanted to do something. The first year we helped three families. This year there are 10 and we’ve had as many as 35 families. It just started with the Pullman (Elementary) area and we’re doing it countywide now.”
“We saw there was a need to bridge the gap between us and the community and give back to those in need,” Gardiner said. Gardiner thought they were doing the community a service, but when it came down to Christmas Eve and they set out to deliver gifts to the families, he said, “We received a lot — we got to see the joy on the kids’ faces.”
Knapp originally held community fundraisers to support the program but over the years donations dried up and the toy drive brought in more stuffed teddy bears than anything else. So Knapp teamed up with Toys for Tots in Holland and asked his coworkers to do the rest.
“Sixteen-year-olds really don’t want a stuffed teddy bear for Christmas,” Knapp said. “There are more age specific toys for the teens through Toys for Tots.” “Then I gave families (to adopt) to the dispatch center, the courts — different groups within the Sheriff’s Department,” Knapp said. “Different shifts would adopt a family and they’d buy all the clothes and socks and shoes. I would get mittens and hats and the toys are from Toys for Tots. We try to make sure each member of the family gets at least one outfit, hat and mittens, and if needed they get a coat.”
This is the first time the Sheriff’s Department has held a fundraiser in five years. Some 30 Sheriff’s Department employees participated. “The last I knew we were at $1,300,” Knapp said. “The front office ladies said, ‘We don’t want to grow goatees but we want to donate.’”
Knapp seeks out the families by asking the schools for a list of those in need and then sends those families questionnaires so they can list items they desire. Toys for Tots of Holland provides each child with three toys and stocking stuffers.
“The schools basically do everything as far as the setup and coordination of families,” Knapp said. “Because I did work in Lee Township for eight years as a Community Policing Officer, they always get at least five families every year. Then I get in contact with them and we deliver the gifts on Christmas Eve.”
“I went into the drug unit and Joe picked (Cops for Christmas) up and carried the torch after the first couple years,” Gardiner said.
Members of Knapp’s church, Maplewood Reform Church in Holland, provide clothing for the families. “I’ve got a group of ladies (from church) that make quilts, and each family gets a quilt from them,” Knapp said.
“I think the first couple years, Joe and I put out the word, but now it’s the whole department involved,” Gardiner said. The deputies buy and help wrap hundreds of gifts. With an average of 10 to 15 families every year, that’s about 50 to 60 kids who get three toys each, plus clothing items for all the family members. Cops for Christmas has helped as many as 35 families in one year, with about 100 kids.
“The whole Sheriff’s Department helps with the program,” Knapp said. “There’s a core group that have a big wrapping party at my house. It gets a little hectic at my house around Christmas.”
“There are so many families in need down there I’m glad Joe expanded it,” Gardiner said. “We’re all kind of fragmented the way technology is. It’s actually been a really good team building opportunity for our department, bringing everyone together for a good cause. I give Joe all the credit. He’s really picked it up and ran with it and built it to what it is today.”
Sgt. Cory Hunt, who’s on the SWAT Team with Knapp, participated in the Goatee Challenge and helps with the wrapping party. He said the event involves the deputies’ wives and their children. “That’s a family event,” Hunt said. “That’s a big effort from a lot people at the department. We usually bring a dish to pass and we have a little food and get together.”
Knapp said Cops for Christmas didn’t initially run as smoothly as he thought it would. “Nowadays my wife and five kids are very helpful in the whole process. All my kids come with me on delivery day. It’s kind of a family thing I wanted to start.”
To help or for more information on Cops for Christmas, contact Deputy Knapp at (269) 673- 0500, ext. 4444.