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Riverside police, firefighters fill Christmas wish lists

Big brother Mark Zahnd III knew the aching gaps that he and little brother Dominique share.

“You should’ve gotten some shoes!” 12-year-old Mark said, as he spied into Dominique’s busy shopping cart Sunday morning.

“I

did

,” his 8-year-old brother replied quickly, not wanting to be distracted at the crunch time of a gifted Christmas shopping trip.

Each was shopping with a Riverside police officer at a Northland Walmart, among some 60 Riverside children that school counselors and others had identified as needing the special help that Riverside police and firefighters and other volunteers offer every Christmas.

Their separate courses through the store had reunited unexpectedly at the toy aisle where Dominique was zeroing in on how to spend the last $40 of his $150 shopping allotment.

You have to think carefully when you’re replacing nearly everything you had.

Before it got worse, 2011 began as a difficult year in a string of difficult years for Mark Jr. and Shauna Zahnd and their four children.

The father’s drywall construction work, with the sanding and the dust, had inflamed his asthma, and he’d lost his job.

The mother was still dealing with the extended consequences of her depression after a child had died at 14 months in 2006.

Then came the late winter day last March when they had to abandon a rented home in Kansas City that inspectors found had dangerous gas and electrical problems.

When they returned two days later to remove their possessions, they said, the house had been broken into, and everything had been stolen.

Clothes, jewelry, games and toys all were gone — including Dominique’s entire Matchbox car collection.

“Loooooookie, Dominique,” Mark said, waving a box of mini-Matchbox cars from the end of the Walmart aisle.

I know

,” little brother said, still focused.

Some 25 police officers and firefighters led most of the young shoppers through the store, then dispatched them to three dozen more volunteers, many of them spouses and family members of Riverside employees, who helped organize the children and then wrapped their presents for them.

The city raises money throughout the year, including a benefit golf tournament through Riverside’s Fire/Police Athletic League, to make the annual shopping trip possible, said Officer Matt Westrich, who managed Sunday’s operation. They respond mainly to referrals from school counselors and try to serve a mostly new collection of children each year.

The Zahnds, who moved into a cramped apartment in Riverside, go to Southeast Elementary School and Plaza Middle School in the Park Hill School District.

Ellie Starbuck, a retired Sprint worker who helps with many of Riverside’s community efforts, helped run the gift wrapping assembly line.

“You see so many children who, before they want toys, they’re getting clothes, underwear and socks,” Starbuck said. “They’ll shop for grandma and grandpa ”

The Zahnds’ daughter, 13-year-old Alisia Bowen, picked a baby outfit for a friend’s newborn and then a shirt for her mom before she began finding things for herself. She made a line for clothes, starting with a wool SpongeBob hat.

Mark III also filled his cart mostly with clothes, including three ball caps and some black high-top sneakers, as he wrapped up his morning with Detective Billy Aaron.

“It’s a good feeling, everybody volunteering,” Aaron said. “It gives us (officers) an opportunity to be in the public and be who we are. We’re people.”

Come this time next year, Shauna Zahnd said, she hopes the trouble of 2011 will be put behind them.

“I want to be back in a house,” she said. “I want to be back on our feet the way we used to be. I want to make things be better for my kids. I want our life to be back together.”

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