The crying, dirty, barefoot children touched Mark Engravalle’s heart.
And what the Roeland Park police officer did for them is touching a lot of other people.
Instead of arresting their mother for shoplifting, Engravalle went into his own pocket to buy shoes for the children and the diapers and baby wipes that the homeless widow had been caught trying to steal.
“I didn’t give it a second thought,” Engravalle said. “I just wanted to do right by the children.”
Since that Monday afternoon encounter with Sarah Robinson and her six daughters inside the Wal-Mart at 51st Street and Roe Boulevard, Engravalle said he has been amazed by the public response and offers of help for Robinson and her children.
“It’s been completely overwhelming,” he said. “I’ve just been blown away.”
Robinson said Friday that she has been utterly overwhelmed by the outpouring from those wanting to help her.
Robinson became overcome with emotion when asked what the officer’s gesture meant to her.
“It was a shocker,” she said.
For now, she and the children are staying in a hotel room with a friend, but they have to move out Sunday.
The incident began about 4 p.m. Monday when Engravalle was dispatched to the Wal-Mart after a woman and child were caught shoplifting.
He has been an officer in Roeland Park since December 2013, and such calls to that store are a daily occurrence, he said. Usually, people are stealing things like jewelry, cosmetics and electronics.
But this time, Robinson and one of her older daughters had been trying to take diapers, wipes and shoes.
The girls — 15, 13, 12, 4 and 2-year-old twins — were crying.
“They thought I was going to take their mother to jail,” he said.
Engravalle asked Robinson if she had any money for the items and she said no. He saw the dirty, bare feet and legs of the younger girls and asked if they had shoes.
“She said no and started crying harder,” he said.
At that moment, he said he was thinking of his own two children.
He told the oldest daughter to take her younger sisters and pick out some shoes.
Talking to Robinson, he learned that her husband had drowned in 2011 and that the family recently had been living out of their car.
As a police officer, he was required to write Robinson a citation for shoplifting.
But officers also are supposed to help people. As a human being and a father, Engravalle said he couldn’t just walk away. So he paid for the diapers, shoes and wipes.
“By then, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place, including mine,” he said.
Engravalle declined to say how much he spent.
“I don’t want to focus on a dollar amount,” he said. “It was just about whatever it took to take care of the children.”
Police Chief John Morris of Roeland Park said he was not surprised by what Engravalle did.
A few months ago, Engravalle was one of four officers who received a lifesaving award in a case involving a choking infant.
“He’s a really good guy with a compassionate heart,” Morris said.
Morris said the department has received numerous calls from people asking how they can help the family.
On Friday morning, a representative from KMBZ radio dropped off more than $6,000 donated by the station’s listeners, the chief said.
Another radio station, KCMO, will be collecting items for the family Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon in the parking lot outside the police department at 4600 W. 51st St.
A bank account has also been set up to help the family. Donations can be sent to the Sarah J. Robinson Donation Account, Mission Bank, 5115 Roe Blvd., Roeland Park, KS 66205.