It was impossible to tell who was having the most fun, the Oro Valley Police Department officers or the kids they had in tow during a "Shop with a Cop" romp through the Target store at 10555 N. Oracle Road last week.
Isis, 5, was on a tear. Fifteen minutes into the shopping spree made possible by $500 in cash donations from Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 53 and another $100 in merchandise from Target, her shopping cart was filling up fast.
A small, pink plastic purse lie atop her cartful of treasures, two unidentifiable trinkets inside. "What are you going to do with those," the elfish child was asked. "I don't know," she replies softly. But oh, did that purse look fine in her young eyes.
Down another aisle, Detective Gary Schmitz was whisking along with Conrad, 4, trying to keep pace as the young boy latched on to nearly everything hanging along his route. "I want this, I want that," Conrad would repeat, picking up item after item and as quickly putting each back on the shelve as something else caught his eye.
Konrad bounces from a ski hat to a Batman shirt as Schmitz sizes up a pair of pants for the boy. The detective takes a pair off the hanger and presses them against Conrad to see if they're about the right size. They're at least six inches short. "Uh oh," says Schmitz, "I'm not very good at this."
Ramon, 10, has a soccer ball, a ski hat and a pair of gloves in his cart and he's already been through the toy and sport sections once. "I guess nothing really leaped out at him," says Officer Tom Buvik of his charge's selections. "But he'll be back there again I bet."
Another officer holds up a red sweatshirt for Michael, 3, to look at. "Like it?" Michael is asked. "No" comes the very decisive reply. This is a kid who takes his shopping seriously. He would leave the store carrying a bag taller than he is.
The shopping spree for the 11 kids aged 3-13, all refugees from abusive homes, was just part of a special holiday week. For many it was the first time they had even seen a cop since the day one came to take them away from their homes and move them into SPLASH House, an arm of the GAP Ministry in Tortolita run by Greg and Pam Ayers.
Once done and home, they could hardly wait to play with their toys and try on their clothes, said Greg Ayers. "The girls could hardly sleep with the promise of being able to wear their new clothes the next day. The boys, of course, were much more macho about it all."
The real impact of the day's shopping, however, was not from what was bought by the kids, but from the time police spent with the children in a positive environment, he said. "From their standpoint, that was incredible."
The kids and the cops were able to get together after a nurse at Wilson Elementary School told Officer Ferdinand Tolentino, a Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) counselor.
"I was truly touched, even in such a short time shopping with the kids," said Tolentino, better known as "Officer T" to his charges. "I hope when they're playing with their toys or putting on their new clothes they'll think more positively about their experiences with cops and remember the officers who helped them."
FOP Lodge 53 has been raising funds for local charitable activities since 1997, but this was its first "Shop with a Cop" effort.
The SPLASH in SPLASH House run by the Ayers stands for Spirit-Powered Love Aggressively Shaping Hearts. It is what Pam Ayers, a former American Express executive, and Greg, a former U.S. Bank executive, have dedicated their lives to.
The couple, Indiana natives, left their home state in 1981 and moved to Salt Lake City in 1998 after resigning their positions when Greg was appointed pastor of an Assemblies of God church there, then on to near Seattle in 1999, which served as a base while they went on to missionary work in Mexico and India. They arrived in Tortolita later that year.
The couple started out feeding the hungry, 100 families a month, on a 400 mile round trip that took them from Picture Rocks to South Tucson and Catalina back to Oro Valley.
They took in their first group of kids in January 2000, five abused children from a single family in California that called on the Ayers for help.
Later, the couple were awarded a contract with the Arizona Department of Economic Security to provide shelter to eight more children, all victims of abuse in the home. Since July of 2000, more than 40 kids have passed through their shelter, some for as short as five days, others have been with them since the shelter's inception. Seventy percent of those sheltered have returned either to their own homes or to the homes of relatives. The remainder end up being adopted, Greg Ayers said.
The staff members who serve at SPLASH House aren't just staff, but rather interim parents whose goal is to restore a sense of normal family into the lives of the kids, he said, adding that the children are monitored tightly to instill in them a sense of what is appropriate or inappropriate behavior. It's a monitoring process the kids respond well to, he said.
The couple "got their feet wet in the subtleties of abuse" with their first arrivals when they had to later file a petition for dependency to keep the California children. They lost the battle and had to return the kids because California law superceded Arizona's authority over the children.
In their poverty, children are being forced to deal with the physical and sexual abuse going on in their homes as well, Greg Ayers said. "Parents are killing our children with the things being done in secret."
For the children at SPLASH House, there was more to come after the shopping spree, including free haircuts and other gifts from the Village of Camelot spa and bikes being donated by local churches.
And the Ayers have their hearts set on being able to provide more to the community next year when they begin construction on a new building and develop their plans for teen pregnancy programs and a women's shelter.
Currently, they have a 4,200 square-foot main house for themselves, their own two children, those they're taking in, and five staff members. They also have an 800-square-foot dormitory for the female children and two other staff members. The facilities were built with their own money and donations.
Starting out, Greg Ayers said he had hoped to build a church in Tortolita, but was led in a different direction.
The path the Ayers have taken defines what GAP stands for, people filling a gap in freeing children from abuse.