When 7-year-old Javel Nieto landed eyes on the blue Lego set, he knew it was the one. Hugging the box, he sprinted to his parents’ Walmart shopping cart and tossed the toy in.
“I am super duper happy,” he said with a wide smile, staring at the loaded cart.
The Legos sat beside a basketball, a volleyball, princess shoes and coloring kits for him, his younger brother and two baby sisters.
His mother, Jennifer Nieto, 29, watched her kids frolic through the store aisles, tears streaming down her face.
“I told my mother the kids probably wouldn’t have a Christmas this year because we couldn’t afford it,” Nieto said. “But then I got a random phone call. When I answered it, it was the Department of Children and Families telling me I had been chosen by them and the Doral police department to get Walmart gift cards for my kids.”
She paused. “It was a miracle.”
This is the fifth year that the city of Doral’s police department partnered with DCF and Walmart to give 50 underprivileged children each $100 gift cards. DCF officials were responsible for selecting the 50 families. Twenty are from Doral, 18 are in the foster care system, and seven are families from elsewhere in Miami-Dade County.
According to Marianela Amador, a DCF supervisor, the families that were selected either get public assistance, are unemployed, are single parents or are in foster care. Kids ages 1 to 17 participated.
“We might not be able to reach everyone, but we’re able to reach 50 families,” Doral Neighborhood Resource Officer Luis Hernandez said. “This type of initiative is not built by individuals, but rather a great, strong community.”
The adventure started at 9 a.m. on Dec. 20 at Walmart on 87th Avenue and NW 13th Terrace. The children were given cupcakes and orange juice to start off their shopping spree, while Doral officers stood by to help them pick out toys. An officer dressed as Santa arrived in a cop car.
Every child got one $100 gift card and were walked into the store by police officers. From there, they were free to pick out whatever toys they wanted. Two cashiers were set apart specifically for the initiative.
Karen Mirce, 40, tried to fight back tears as she hugged Amador.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Mirce said to the police officers.
Mirce is a teacher at Kids Learning Center in Cutler Bay. The single mom lives in Sweetwater. When her four kids went in to shop, she stepped outside to get some fresh air.
“I didn’t expect to be the one they give to,” Mirce told the Miami Herald. “I’m always the one giving, not the other way around.”
Mirce said days ago she had to return her kids’ Christmas gifts, something that “tore me apart,” she said.
“I had to return the toys I bought for Christmas to buy food,” she said. “I had to make ends meet. My income just doesn’t stretch. I prayed and prayed that my kids would understand. Then I got a call.”
Amador called Mirce, explaining that she had been randomly selected to “shop with a cop.”
“’What? What’s the catch?’ I asked,” Mirce said of the phone conversation. Her cheeks were rosy and her eyess glossed. “She just told me: ‘Absolutely Nothing. Congratulations.’”
Mirce said she will “never forget” that special phone call.
“My kids have gifts and I now can buy food for the family,” she said. “But, no matter how hard it is, no matter the struggle, I know that as long as we’re together, we’ll be OK.”
“I like toys, but most of all, I love my mom and dad and police officers and God. That’s what Christmas is all about,” Javel Nieto, 7, said. “But this is the best Christmas ever. I had fun with all the kids.”
Follow @MoniqueOMadan on Twitter.