December 23, 2016
About the same time Appleton police were delivering “blessing bags” to needy individuals and families at a downtown church’s free breakfast for the homeless, an officer on patrol approached a 15-year-old boy whose sparse clothing was very inappropriate for being outside on a cold December day.
The boy, a refugee from Uganda, had been in the U.S. for a short time, did not know his address or phone number. And, his cellphone was dead. “He said it had been the first time he had gone outside by himself and he became lost very quickly,” said Appleton Police Officer Karl Riechers.
Overcoming fear, anxiety
Apprehensive about what might happen next, the boy told the officer he was “afraid of police. I told him whatever his experiences were in Uganda, he’d find that police are much different here in Appleton.”
After getting warmed up and his phone charged, the boy was able to call his mother and he was returned home. “At the house, I counted at least five younger brothers and sisters, no television, no toys, just furniture to sit on,” Officer Riechers recalled. “The family looked very nervous until I smiled real big and said, ‘Jambo!’ It was a Swahili greeting I picked up from my Ugandan friends in Iraq and they all started grinning.”
Blessing bag impact
Two days later, Officer Riechers and another officer returned to the home to drop off some food from Feeding America and a Lights of Christmas blessing bag.
It was exactly the situation that Katie Connell envisioned a few months earlier when – moved to action by the senseless shooting of 12 Dallas police officers (five of whom died) – she came up with the Lights of Christmas – a two-fold campaign that would support local police while at the same time help needy and homeless individuals and families. She approached the board of directors at Q90FM radio where she works and then enlisted FOX11 (WLUK) to launch the Lights of Christmas effort that quickly jelled into an impactful mission to help others.
Community First Credit Union, Kolosso Toyota and US Venture quickly signed on as sponsors. Community First also served as a collection point for donations at its 23 branches around the region and members responded by purchasing icons and making donations to the Lights of Christmas campaign. Soon, other area businesses like Festival Foods, Cousins Subs, Culver’s and Thrivent Financial took notice – all offering donations towards the campaign.
“I started this idea in September so within three months it turned into over $10,000 in cash donations and 100 blessing bags worth almost $50 each,” Connell said.
One blessing bag recipient, Christopher, was grateful to receive a warm fleece blanket, mittens, gift cards and other items that will come in handy. “I come up here to better myself,” said the 50-year-old. “It just takes a little time. But I’m away from the violence and the killings back in (his hometown). I have no family up here at all so I’m on my own.”
Other blessing bag or gift card recipients have included an Appleton man recently diagnosed with cancer struggling with a disruptive neighbor, a down-on-her luck woman who frequently seeks refuge at the Appleton library, a teen-age girl from a broken family of limited means, a woman in a county courtroom due to her mental health issues, a blind elderly man who recently had his leg amputated, a young mother stressed about finances with nothing for Christmas, a young homeless girl whose mother died recently and whose father cannot work due to MS, and a middle school student who lives with his troubled dad and grandmother and rides his bike to school every day year round.
Appleton Police Chief Todd Thomas said its 50 blessing bags were placed in the roll call room so officers could take one or two when heading out on a patrol shift.
“These are things that really lift our spirits,” he said. “We get the opportunity to meet with people that we know are struggling and have a lot more challenges in their lives than most of us. We get to see them smile and give them a little bit of happiness.”
Returning in 2017
“We already have $13,000 – which is more than we have this year – pledged for Lights of Christmas next year,” Connell said. “Most of our sponsors have already committed.”
Unfortunately, we are living in an era where police are unfairly maligned by a few rare incidents while their good deeds and great service to communities are too often overlooked. The blessing bags are allowing police to have positive interactions with individuals looking for hope.
Officer Riechers said the refugee family was so happy to receive the donated food and the items in the blessing bags, including scarves, mittens and more. “One of the youngest boys came right up to me and started holding my hand,” he recalled. “When it was time to go, the father asked me to come back soon and talk to him, and he said he was glad that the police in the U.S. were so different. I’ve heard terrible stories from my Ugandan friends and I’m so glad we were able to make a good impression on this family.”
At the homeless breakfast, Chief Thomas shared the following message to all who attended: “Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas. God Bless you all. And if you need anything from us, you know we’re there for you.”