By DAVID RAINER, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Last week’s Shop with a Cop events at three Academy Sports + Outdoors locations in Alabama got off to a somewhat tentative start, but it wasn’t because of a lack of funds or availability of products.
Each youth from three Alabama Sheriffs Youth Ranches was provided a $200 gift card to use at the Academy Sports + Outdoors locations in Florence, Montgomery and Foley. Conservation Enforcement Officers from the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division and Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) provided aid and guidance for the youths’ shopping choices. The Alabama Conservation Enforcement Officers Association (ACEOA) provided a donation to feed the youths after the shopping spree.
According to Michael Smith, CEO of Alabama Sheriffs Youth Ranches, the slow start for the shopping spree was because most of the kids from the three ranches – Colbert County Girls Ranch, Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch and Baldwin County Boys Ranch – had never been in that situation before.
“I just want to express how much we at the Alabama Sheriffs Youth Ranches appreciate the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) and Academy Sports + Outdoors for embracing our ranchers like they did,” Smith said. “Many of these ranchers had never even been in a store like that with that kind of money. I noticed it at the event. They were so overwhelmed by it they didn’t know where to go first.
“Without the help of people from the Conservation Department and Academy Sports + Outdoors, they might not have been able to do something like that. It’s great for me as CEO of the Sheriffs Ranches to see the State of Alabama caring for our young people.”
Chris Blankenship, ADCNR Commissioner, attended the event in Montgomery and said not only did the young people fill shopping carts, ADCNR benefited greatly as well.
“The Shop with a Cop event was incredible for all involved,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “We appreciate, first, the generosity of Academy Sports + Outdoors and the Alabama Conservation Enforcement Officers Association. They both have been great partners and supporters of ADCNR and outdoor recreation in Alabama. I want to commend our Communications and Marketing Section Chief Billy Pope for organizing these events and his ongoing work with Academy and others to promote ADCNR and the work of our staff to more Alabamians. Events like this are good for all of us.
“I don’t know who enjoyed the shopping more, the kids or the Conservation officers. They all looked like they were having a ball. This is really a great opportunity for the officers and the kids to get to know one another on a different level and in a different situation. It helps both groups look at the other as real people and individuals. That sort of community involvement is good for the officers and helps us all remember why we got into this work in the first place. We are out working to conserve the natural resources of Alabama for this generation and the next. Spending time getting to share that love for the outdoors and our fellow man is good for all involved. The young people at the Boys and Girls Ranches have been through a lot. This program helps them to have a good Christmas and to get to know some men and women in law enforcement that can be positive role models and resources as they grow.”
Smith said the feedback from the youth who participated in the events has been great. He said his son, WFF Conservation Enforcement Officer Kirk Smith, assisted at the Montgomery event and shared that some of the girls were removing tags and donning new shoes and pullovers as they left the store.
“He (Kirk) said it was a touching thing to see and how much, as a law enforcement officer, he enjoyed having dinner with them afterward and hearing their stories,” the elder Smith said. “To have the officers in that atmosphere being the good guys was special for us all. We know they’re out there to protect. I hope this encourages some of our ranchers to consider a law enforcement career because they did see the good side of it.
“I’ve gotten pictures and comments from the girls and boys who were at the events, saying how much they appreciate it. We had several of our youth ask that the Conservation officers come and visit the ranches. Those officers made our young people feel so comfortable. This was a side of law enforcement that many of them had never seen. Some come from troubled homes, and to see those officers in full uniform pushing those buggies around, taking care of those young people was special, not only for the ranchers but for me as CEO as well.”