WHEELING - Christmas came a couple weeks early for more than a dozen area children who were treated to a shopping trip they won't soon forget.
On Thursday, Pirates Charities Winter CARE-a-van stopped at Target at The Highlands to accompany nearly 15 students from Bridge Street, Wheeling and Triadelphia middle schools as they took part in the annual Shop with a Cop program.
Sponsored by the Wheeling Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 38, the Shop with a Cop program has become a holiday tradition in which local law enforcement partners with Ohio County Schools to identify students in need and take them shopping for toys, clothes, books, games and more.
SHOP WITH A BUC — Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Gaby Sanchez helps Triadelphia Middle School sixth-grader Leona Camp check out at Target at The Highlands on Thursday during the Wheeling Police Department’s Shop with a Cop program. The Pittsburgh Pirates Charities CARE-a-Van participated in the event. -- Scott McCloskey
"We let them buy pretty much anything they want for themselves," said Wheeling Police Sgt. Tom Howard, lodge president. "It'll make a better Christmas for them. Some of them wouldn't have a Christmas otherwise."
Representing the Pirates were starting pitchers Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke, first baseman Gaby Sanchez, relief pitcher Justin Wilson, bullpen coach Euclides Rojas, play-by-play announcer Tim Neverett and the Pirate Parrot. In addition to several Wheeling police officers, the Ohio County Sheriff's Department and Bethlehem Police Department also were represented.
The smiles were bright as the children fanned out through the store with their new buddies in tow. Many wasted no time heading straight for the toys and electronic gadgets, while others took a more practical approach.
"I couldn't talk him into a toy," Wilson said of his shopping buddy. "He went all for the clothes."
Sanchez, meanwhile, received a crash course on Disney princesses, My Little Pony and the latest in Barbie fashion as he combed the toy aisles with Triadelphia Middle School sixth-grader Leona Camp. And some of the children didn't shop just for themselves, but also made sure they had something to bring home to their siblings.
For years, the Pirates have broken into groups and traveled around the region to interact with fans in surrounding communities through the Winter Caravan. This year, however, they decided to turn the caravan into a "CARE-a-van," transforming it into a community service-based initiative rather than a series of autograph signing meet and greet sessions.
"It's important to give back to our community," said Pirates spokesman Dan Millar. "We've been serving meals, we were at the food bank (in Pittsburgh) last night. ... I think the guys really enjoy it, too."
This year's regularly scheduled Shop with a Cop event actually was Sunday, with more than 100 Ohio County students from pre-K through eighth grade participating, Howard said. But when the Pirates reached out to ask how they could get involved through the CARE-a-van, they didn't hesitate to do it all over again. And when all was said and done, the team picked up the tab.
"It's a great thing. The kids are going to love it," Howard said. "Plus, I'm a big Pirates fan."
Away from the ballpark and the pressures that go along with being a professional athlete, the Pirates players got to display a side not always captured in the heat of competition - that of normal guys who just happen to have the rare opportunity to play baseball for a living.
"They see us not just on the field, but as regular human beings," Wilson said.
Added Morton, "We have our jerseys on and all that stuff, but it's nice to go out to where they're from and meet them on neutral ground, you might say. These are the folks we play for."