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PORT CHARLOTTE -- When Vadim Melnichuk spotted a brand new bicycle at the Walmart store in Murdock, he immediately broke out in a big smile, pointed to it and said, 'That's what I want for Christmas!'
Vadim, 7, is a student at Liberty Elementary School in Port Charlotte. He was selected by the school's guidance counselor to participate in the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office Shop with a Cop program, which is held every year during the Christmas season. On Tuesday, he was among 32 to 40 children who were each given a $100 gift certificate to wander the store with a law enforcement officer and choose gifts for themselves or family members.
Recently, Vadim's bike had been damaged and needed repair. To make matters worse, he had left his shopping list at home before coming to the store. But when he saw the Hyper 20-inch BMX bicycle, he immediately fell in love with it. However, there was one problem: the price tag on the bicycle was $129.99 and he only had $100 to spend.
When he heard what had happened, and how much Vadim wanted the bike, Walmart store manager Bill Clark gave his approval for the youngster to purchase it.
'It's hard to say no,' he said, 'especially at this time of the year. I have been store manager here for five years and love doing this. We have a bunch of good kids here today. '
CCSO Reserve Officer Larry Kantner, who was with Vadim on his shopping spree, agreed.
'I thought what the store did was great,' he said. 'It certainly made Vadim's day.'
According to Dale Phillips, CCSO crime prevention specialist and coordinator for the event, it is the ninth year the CCSO has sponsored the program. An estimated 80 to 100 Charlotte County elementary school students in grades two through five are presented with a $100 gift certificate to spend at the various Walmart stores in the area. Each child is accompanied by members of the CCSO, the Punta Gorda Police Department, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Highway Patrol, and the Department of Corrections.
'Volunteers from the CCSO and the Rotonda Elks Lodge 2710 also help with the checking in and wrapping,' Phillips said. 'We run it and they supply the manpower. I can't thank them enough.'
Phillips said that to be selected for the program each child must meet certain criteria. He or she must demonstrate a positive rapport with law enforcement, possess sound decision-making and leadership qualities, be financially impacted, or the victim of a natural disaster.
'The student may have a family member who is incarcerated,' Phillips said. 'However, the child may be doing exceptional in school. There are many factors. But the school's guidance counselors make the final selection.'
As each child checked in they were paired with an officer from one of the departments who then escorted them right to Santa Claus. After the kids told Old St. Nick what they wanted for Christmas, the officer and student grabbed a shopping cart and went from aisle to aisle looking for gifts.
'We want every student to come away from this with a positive attitude toward cops,' Phillips said. 'That is our main objective.'