SAN JOSE -- CHP Officer Ross Lee usually scours the highways scoured the Target racks Friday for a school binder with pictures of cats and dogs.
But the blonde 11-year-old next to him found one first. Mariah, who will be starting middle school, leapt for a binder with a picture of a dog and a cat.
When asked whether she was a cat or a dog person, she responded: "I love all animals!"
In November, she was sleeping along with her father on a bus. But now she's living in a shelter, and her father has found a job. Friday, the Shop with a Cop Foundation gave her and nine other students with recognized need gift cards for school supplies at Target.
"All these supplies can add up quite a bit, the child goes to school without a backpack...they start falling behind," said the founder of the event, Darrell Cortez. "It's about starting school off right."
A former San Jose police officer himself, Cortez saw families in need in the community around him. It inspired him to found the foundation in 2008 to raise money for the yearly event. Target, the event's corporate sponsor, funded the first event and continues to support the foundation, chipping in $1,000 for the Friday event along with $500 from the foundation.
Each December, the volunteer-run foundation selects 50 to 60 students from who have perfect attendance and have met or exceeded their reading goals in the foundation's "Readers Are Leaders" program. Based on their achievements, students get a gift card of up to $125 and then are teamed up with police officers and Target salespeople to go Christmas shopping.
This time, Target and the foundation organized a back-to-school event, "Operation Backpack," to meet low-income students' need for school supplies.
Like the December event, Friday's shopping also focused on sending children a positive message about police officers. However, the focus this time was to help two families in particular: the family of Teresa Maravilla, and Mariah, who had until recently been sleeping on the "Hotel 22" bus with her father.
When Maravilla, a mother of three, was stabbed to death in her apartment, her children's school reached out and started raising money to help the family. Even then, they struggled. When Miriam Villanueva, whose daughter attends the same school as the Maravilla twin girls, asked their father Baltazar Alejo how he was doing, he told her, "I'm lost."
Villanueva, a member of the nonprofit organization East Side Heroes, which encourages at-risk teenagers to succeed in school, started scouring different organizations for aid and got in touch with Cortez.
She gave him a list of items the children would need, and Cortez arranged the event.
"It falls in line with our mission, let's help them out," said Cortez.
Aside from the benefit for the students, the officers also enjoy getting to know the children. Many are devoted to it: Officer Eduardo Sandoval had a 14-hour shift right before the event started at 9 a.m. But he wasn't going to miss it.
Reserve Officer Jim McMahon is a regular: he's been shopping with the needy children since the program was founded. He values spending an "interactive day" with the children.
"They get to see that police officers are a positive role model, and there's always something nice about bringing a smile to a child's face," McMahon said.
"It's not about providing an economic Band-aid or charity," Cortez emphasized. "It's about a human investment, and we're investing in the lives of these children."
Members of the community can help the foundation for this year's Christmas event by making a tax-deductible donation online at http://www.shopwithacopsv.com/donate/. They can also help the Alejo family by contacting Miriam Villanueva at email@example.com.