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RIO GRANDE - Twenty-six Middle Township youths spent Dec. 20 shopping with a cop for Christmas toys and joys, courtesy of three local organizations who want to create growth opportunities, overcome hardships, and strengthen the rapport between the Middle Township Police Department and local youths.

Progressive Black Initiative (PBI) President Anthony Anderson, of Court House, said each youth was given $200 to spend however they chose. While many bought presents for themselves, they also bought presents for siblings and parents during the 'Shop with a Cop' event.

“It was great,” Anderson said after the event. “This was the first time we did this, and we didn’t know what to expect. Everyone showed up, and the kids bought for themselves, their siblings, and even for their parents. 

"This event was very special to our organization. We enjoyed being able to bring joy to so many households in our community with our co-sponsors.”

Each youngster, from Middle Township School District, grades 2-6, shopped with a PBI representative and a Middle Township police officer, sponsors of the event, along with O.C.E.A.N. Inc., a community action agency for lower and moderate-income residents, based in Egg Harbor Township. The agency also provided each child with a gift card to a local grocery store.

“Anytime the police can participate in something positive like this is a good thing and very beneficial for everyone,” said Detective Thomas Flounders, who organized the event on behalf of the Middle Township Police Department.

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Irene Becica shops with her grandchild, Naveah Voncolln, Middle Township Patrolman Jonas McInnis, and Shakina Akers, from the Progressive Black Initiative, during the Shop with a Cop event Dec. 20. Twenty-six Middle Township children were able to shop for Christmas presents for themselves and family members. 

In his seventh year as a police officer, Flounders also organizes the department’s annual toy drive, which is helping 52 local families this year. Twelve of the department’s approximately 52 members shopped with the youngsters, some of whom were also recipients in the toy drive. He said the department donated $600 to the event, which came from the police officers’ association’s dues to which each officer contributes from their paycheck.

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Progressive Black Initiative member Ernesto Bailey and Middle Township Police Sgt. Josh Bryan shop with Leydinise Mercado-Rios during the Dec. 20 Shop with a Cop event, in Rio Grande. Three local groups sponsored the event to help 26 youngsters during the holiday season. 

“The officers are doing this on their own time,” Flounders noted. “Our police chief (Christopher Leusner) is a good leader, in my opinion, and he believes that if we can be involved in the community it can make a difference. I agree with his aspects of policing and really enjoy being able to do things with our youths.”

Anderson said several fathers from Whitesboro were hosting events, such as Sunday summer barbecues, community cleanups, a fish fry dinner, fall festival, Christmas tree lighting ceremony, and a two-day family event when the Concerned Citizens of Whitesboro, which is not affiliated with PBI, canceled its 2020 reunion due to Covid concerns. Along the way, PBI built quite a following.

“This (PBI) grew out of the protests earlier this year, in Rio Grande,” Anderson said, explaining the group consists of “dads who are active in their children’s lives.” 

“We started with just a few kids at that first barbecue and over two weeks, it grew to five dozen kids,” he said. “With the help of Middle Township, their police, and community members, we were able to bring families together, build a network to form mentorships, help these kids." 

“This all goes a long way toward that goal,” he added.

In addition to the police department’s donation, PBI contributed $600 to the event, while O.C.E.A.N. Inc. contributed the remainder.

To contact Karen Knight, email

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