When 27 children hit the aisles at Wal-Mart on Bush River Road this morning, they can thank a 39-year police veteran for the opportunity.
Since 1997, Columbia Police Capt. Estelle Young has organized the department's annual Shop With A Cop program. The program rewards young people who are succeeding in school despite tough circumstances.
"A lot of kids only see the negative side of law enforcement," Young said. "This is a positive thing. I enjoy seeing we made a difference in some child's life."
Young, who commands the city's north precinct, founded the department's Shop With A Cop program because she wanted to reward older children who were contributing to their communities and not causing trouble. Each year, she writes a grant proposal to Wal-Mart, asking for financial support for the program. This year, the Bush River Road store donated $1,000, and 27 students will get to shop with the money.
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Each child has been selected by a school resource officer and will be escorted through the store with that officer. The cops make sure children pick out something meaningful. In other words, no one gets to spend $45 on candy.
"Some kids have never shopped by themselves," Young said.
One year, a girl showed up in sandals on a frigid December day. Young asked why she was wearing sandals, and the girl told the officer it was the only pair of shoes she owned.
"You know we made her buy shoes," Young said. "She bought a pair of boots."
Young has a reputation for seeing children as her own when she's wearing her uniform, said Columbia Police Chief Tandy Carter.
"Even if there wasn't a cop shop, she would probably be out there doing it anyway," Carter said. "She's the kind of person whose heart is bigger than her head. She invests her time in the community and the kids."
Young joined the police department when just six women worked on the force.
When she signed up, her mother was against the decision.
"She thought it was dangerous," Young said.
In 2008, she was one of three finalists in the city's search for a new chief. Carter eventually was chosen.
Carter said he quickly learned about Young's legacy in the department.
"There were tons of Estelle Young stories," he said. "You start questioning whether you can believe all of those things. She has been one dedicated person."
Now, Young is in charge of the region that includes Eau Claire, her childhood neighborhood. She supervises 62 officers. And her son, Quintus Young I, and her grandson, Quintus Young II, work in law enforcement, too.
Besides running the Shop With A Cop program, Young also is heavily involved with the city's annual Fan the Heat program, through which air conditioners and fans are delivered to those who can't afford them, said Brick Lewis, a Columbia Police spokesman.
Young said she does those things to give back to her community. And she said other cops do the same things. Today, if a child comes up short at the cash register, there won't be a problem.
"The officers will get together and make up the difference," she said.