By Barry Dalton
If you’ve been attending community events in Vandalia, Martinsburg, Mexico and Laddonia this summer and fall, you have probably seen Deputy Cody Burson speeding around like a train conductor on a tractor with numerous barrel cars in tow behind him filled with excited and happy kids.
This is just one way the sheriff’s deputy and his wife, Katie Burson, raise money for the annual Audrain County Shop with a Cop event, which took place on Dec. 12 at the Wal-Mart in Mexico. The Bursons also sell T-Shirts designed by his wife and pound the pavement year round to gather donations from local businesses and supporters.
“They devote holidays and weekends to raise money,” said Melissa Curtis Deimeke, a school counselor at Van-Far. “This program is a wonderful experience for our youth in Audrain County. They are truly a blessing to so many.”
Every train needs a conductor to keep it on track. Deputy Burson, though, is quick to spread the credit around, not only to his wife and to Deimeke for helping raise funds, but to the entire community.
“Everything is community funded, community supported, that’s how we raise our money,” he said. “Without the community involved, we wouldn’t have this program. So as many donations as we get, a lot of times that’s how many kids we get for the year. The community pulls together to make this happen. It’s not just the Sheriff’s Office–it’s the community’s doing.”
Burson says that Wal-Mart, which provides the venue, tables, staffing and a goodies table, has also been a great supporter.
“They’ve been really accommodating for this over the last several years, and it’s been really good to work with them,” Burson said. “I’d also like to thank each and every Walmart employee that helped in several different roles today. They are some awesome people who worked very hard to make this happen.”
Walmart employee Jennifer Allen, who dressed up in elf helper attire, said she looks forward to this event.
“I’m wrapping gifts today,” said Allen, who also teaches at North Callaway Middle School in Auxvasse. “Yesterday at school I was an elf, so I thought I’d be an elf today, too. I love Shop with a Cop. Hopefully, it helps the kids get to know the police officers a little bit better and see that there’s a different side to them.”
The county’s five grade schools selected approximately 10 students each to attend this year’s event. Participating schools were Community R-VI in Laddonia, Van-Far in Vandalia/Farber, and McMillan, Hawthorne and Eugene Field in Mexico.
Each school used its own method to choose the students, but Burson simply asked the school counselors to send the children most in need.
“I said to the counselors, ‘you guys know your kids better than anybody,’” Burson explained. “‘If one of your kids needs help in any way, then this would help them, so choose that kid.’”
Each student who was selected was partnered up with a law enforcement officer for a $100 shopping spree. From the Audrain County Sheriff’s Office were Detective Rich Ingram, Deputy Robert Taylor, Deputy Jeff Hilderman, Deputy Joe Goodwin and Sergeant Kim Brink. From the Missouri Conservation Commision was Agent Norman Steelman. From Mexico Public Safety were Sergeant Alma Hayes and School Resource Officer Pat Carey. And from the Missouri State Highway Patrol were Troopers Bruce McLaughlin and Daniel Dalton, who recently moved to rural Vandalia.
Dalton’s wife, Ashley, also helped with the event by selling cookies through her home bakery and donating the proceeds to the event.
Parent Jennifer Triplett, whose son Cody attends Van-Far Elementary, was one of the many grateful parents.
“I like it,” Triplett said. “It gets him out, and he gets to do something with someone. We have a little wish list, and he got to pick out things for his sister and his siblings, too.”
Burson brought the idea for the program to Sheriff Matt Oller when he came to the sheriff’s department from the Bolivar Police Department. He said that the sheriff was very enthusiastic and very supportive of the program, which has been running now for three years.
“The officers enjoy it,” said Burson. “Most of the officers have kids of their own, a couple of them are school resource officers or former school resource officers. They just like spending time with the kids. It’s a fun time. Generally, if an officer has helped in the past, they had fun so they’ll volunteer for the next year as well.”
All of the kids who participated in the aisles of Walmart alongside an officer had that same look of joy and excitement on their faces as the children who rode Burson’s barrel train at the county festivals.
“Each kid gets something different out of it,” Burson said. “It’s all about building relationships with the public and law enforcement and getting people to have fun and trust us.”
Now that the shopping is over, and the relationships have been built another year, Burson has little time to rest. Soon, winter will come and go, and it will be time for him to swap his deputy’s hat for a conductor’s hat and start the journey to Christmas all over again.