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home : free press advocate : free press advocate March 28, 2017

12/20/2016 8:04:00 PM
Officers stop 24 drivers in Operation Secret Santa
POLICE CHIEF PHIL ARNOLD visits with the puppy that was just added to one of the families receiving a Secret Santa gift from The Free Press Newspapers, the Wilmington Police Department and Bellettini Foods.
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POLICE CHIEF PHIL ARNOLD visits with the puppy that was just added to one of the families receiving a Secret Santa gift from The Free Press Newspapers, the Wilmington Police Department and Bellettini Foods.
Eric Fisher

It was the most exciting two hours I've had in years, riding in a police car pulling people over.

My adrenaline was pumping with our first stop in the Bellettini Foods parking lot. Flashing red and blue light reflected off the rear bumper of an old Buick as Wilmington patrolman Fabian Reyes initiated a traffic stop.

The elderly driver was a perfect target.

Officer Reyes walked up to the driver's side just as the manbehind the wheel rolled his window down.

"How are you sir? My name is Officer Reyes with the city of Wilmington Police Department. The reason I'm stopping you is because I want to congratulate you because you're part of our Operation Secret Santa..."

The old timer had a surprised look on his face.

Officer Reyes then handed him a $25 gift card for groceries and the man, looking even more confused, asked, "What's that, you want $25 from me?"

A store customer came within earshot, walked up to the driver and explained, no, Officer Reyes was giving him $25. She patted the policeman on his arm and said how nice it was. Once the man understood, his face flashed with joy. Our first act of kindness was complete.

That kindness was repeated in Braidwood, Coal City and Wilmington as part of the 25 Days of Kindness Campaign by the Free Press Newspapers. The climax was giving away two dozen $25 gift cards to strangers. We guessed that involving Wilmington's finest, those men and women wearing blue, would be a fun thing to do.

Management at Berkot's Super Foods and Bellettini Foods liked the idea, agreeing to match the number of cards we purchased. The police chiefs in all three towns arranged it so a Free Press staffer could ride along. I was the lucky one to ride in Wilmington.

Chief Phil Arnold arranged three different officers - Dan Brimer, Samatha Sullivan and Reyes - for the ride along. I'd be shooting video, not still photos, something this newspaper man of 36 years is not accustomed to doing.

I realized that police officers know their community well. They targeted those drivers they felt would appreciate a gift card most and with each stop they succeeded.

At first I was concerned with how drivers would react; being pulled over by a police officer can irritate anyone. But during each stop the faces of drivers turned from the fear of receiving a ticket to smiles of joy. There were lots of laughs, the exchange of handshakes and a few hugs too.

It made my job of taking video easy. All I did was capture a few moments when officers and strangers let down their guard and shared in the kindness. It was good to see people being kind hearted to each other and it was wonderful I was getting it "on film."

One of the best stops was one made by Brimer. The "chase" began at the VFW parking lot coming east toward the downtown. The vehicle being targeted had a male driver, female passenger and young girl in the back.

We followed from about five cars away until they turned into the parking lot of Normington's General Store. The officer flashed on his lights as we pulled up behind them. Brimer announced he was participating in Operation Secret Santa and the big man driving the car stood up and embraced the officer.

They were a family who recently moved to town and they were already impressed, the father said. He announced they had just gotten a puppy and were stopping to get pet supplies.

"A puppy!" chief Arnold exclaimed. "Do you have it here in the car?"

The chief accepted the puppy from the little girl in the back seat who announced its name is "Cupcake."

I thought to myself this was too good to be true, a family with a puppy, I couldn't have written a better script.

Chief Arnold was as excited as a kid finding a puppy on Christmas morning. He held Cupcake like he could take the pup home, and after Officer Brimer snapped a photo of the two of them with the family, the chief turned the puppy back over to the little girl.

She gave the chief a smile and wished him a Merry Christmas. It was a priceless and it made Operation Secret Santa a success.

To see the video of Operation Secret Santa held in Wilmington visit the Free Press starting Friday. To see Braidwood and Coal City stops visit the and the




Reader Comments

Posted: Wednesday, December 21, 2016
Article comment by: JM

We were that family with the puppy! We were so surprised when we got pulled over. In fact we had asked each other what it was we did wrong. When the officer told us we got pulled over for a good reason we were in shock because we didn't think people got pulled over for a good reason. When we were told what was going on tears of joy filled my eyes and I felt so blessed to be apart of something so special. I am very happy to call Wilmington my home and appreciate all the kind hearted people in the community. Thank you again for the Christmas miracle :)

The Matheny Family

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