For the past three years, the Vanderburgh County law enforcement community has spent countless hours organizing and fundraising in order to send a total of 118 kids to Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Fourty-eight of those students went to the 'Happiest Place on Earth' late last month. While on the trip, one of those police officers who helped spearhead the unique program received special recognition not just for helping to organize the program but also her his service to community and country.
To see Disney World through the eyes of a 5th, 6th or 7th grader is to see curiosity and unbridled excitement. You could call the 48 students from Glenwood, Cedar Hall and Glenwood students lucky for the chance to visit Disney World -- and they are. But they earned it too through excellence in and out of the classroom.
At our school every day, we say the [Glenwood Leadership Academy] pledge," said principal Tamara Skinner. "We pick the kids we feel like live the pledge every single day."
The students are near the tail end of a four day excursion to Disney as part of the Cops Connecting With Kids program. In order to help fund the trip, members of the Vanderburgh County law enforcement community held fundraisers and solicited donations. Larry Bennett, the owner of Bennett Motors and Audubon Chrysler, provided the largest donation and also devoted numerous hours to the Cops Connecting With Kids program. Spearheaded by members of the Tri-State law enforcement community, the program aims to help build relationships between law enforcement and the community it serves, in addition to making similar connections between kids and educators.
What started as 26 students from a single school has ballooned into 48 kids from three schools.
McGary students Katie Parson, Lilly Osborne, Cannon Matlock and Diana Roblero are just four of the 48 lucky students who were selected as part of this year's trip.
"From the ground to the sky, it's been that incredible," Roblero said.
It didn't take the four girls long to grow fond of their chaperones: Sgt. Jason Cullum, Cullum's wife Shelly and Officer Jacklyn Smith. The feeling was mutual.
"I love these kids. My four girls that have been here with me have completely won my heart over. I love them," Smith said. "I would do anything for them. They could call me at any time and at any hour and I would be there for them. I feel like they're my own kids."
While they may proudly proclaim their titles of 'sergeant' and 'officer' for 361 days a year, Cullum and Smith shed the titles for these four days. They would be on a first-name-basis with the four girls. That's the beauty of the program, Cullum said.
"When you have a kid that looks at you and tells you that this is one of the greatest things that he's ever done... they thank you and you know it's sincere because It comes out of the blue, you know that you're doing the right thing for the right reason," Sgt. Cullum said. "I think that's a testament to how important this program is and how special it is. This is something you're not going to find in a lot of communities. For the Evansville Police Department and Vanderburgh County Sheriff's Office, the EVSC, for all of us to work together to make this a reality for these kids... I wouldn't live anywhere else."
Cullum, typically a friendly but stoic police officer, often became emotional while talking about the program and the impact it has upon the kids. You could see it on his face. However, if you look closely, it's no different than the jubilant emotions found on the kids' faces, too.
In the shadow of Cinderella Castle, the group had the chance to see what makes Disney great. A half-hour long parade down Main Street featured nearly every famed Disney character from the classics like 'Beauty and the Beast' to new favorites like 'Frozen.' The four girls were absolutely giddy. Perhaps the most excited was Katie Parson.
Parson wouldn't be the only trip-goer to have an extra special memory.
Magic Kingdom has a long standing tradition of honoring one and only one military veteran per day. That special veteran is picked at random from the massive crowd of park-goers. But while the group was visiting Magic Kingdom, Cullum was singled out by Disney management.
Cullum would be the veteran of the day.
He would take part in the flag retreat ceremony, a special occasion in which the park seemingly stands still in order to honor our nation's flag -- and those who help defend it. Cullum served in the Air Force and was stationed in South Korea in the 1990s.
At 5 o'clock that day, the bugle played and the flag was lowered. Cullum stood at attention. He clasped the flag and slowly marched down Main Street. He earned applause and was saluted. It was almost too much to take in, he said.
"That was probably one of the coolest things I've ever been able to do," Cullum said. "To have my service recognized and for them to do a ceremony recognizing all veterans service, I was very emotional. At the end, seeing the kids watching, I was overcome with emotion. That was -- I don't know if I can even really describe it. Just to be a part of it was really special."
Making matters even more special, Cullum's wife got to witness the entire ceremony.
"Having not just my friends and my new friends (the kids) but to have my wife with me during a moment like that, it meant a lot to me," Cullum said. "To see her sharing in that emotion, happiness and the pride that I was feeling, that was special as well. That will be something that we'll cherish long after this trip."
The significance of the moment wasn't lost on the kids either.
"My favorite part of the trip was Mr. Jason receiving the flag," Roblero said.
While the ceremony honored him and his service to community and country, Cullum was quick to stress the trip wasn't about him nor was it about his special recognition.
It was about the kids he and so many others helped bring to Disney.
"We've had some kids here that have been through some very rough times in their life and they're still rising up," Cullum said. "To be a part of that journey with them, there's no words."
The group walked more than 40 miles in four days across Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot and Hollywood Studios. They rode the fastest and most gravity-defying attractions. They watched shows and performances while also taking in the sights and sounds of sunny Florida.
The trip was undoubtedly a fun one to go on. But perhaps what mattered most were the connections made between the cops and kids.
"I'll look at [police officers] differently because I know they have a good personality," Parson said.
"They know I'm a police officer but we're not in that whole, 'I'm a cop, you're a kid role.' Right now, we're just two friends hanging out at Disney World," said Officer Phil Smith.
Many of the officers feel as if the trip will help them in their careers moving forward.
"Instead of learning things 10 to 10 years down the road, I'm getting to experience things and learn things at a very early start of my career. I'm grateful for that," Officer Jacklyn Smith said. "It makes you appreciate your career that much more."
Sgt. Cullum said the group is already planning on next year's trip. This time around, program organizers are arranging sponsorships for students. The cost of the sponsorship, estimated to be around $900, will cover transportation, all meals, lodging, luggage, a backpack, shirts, jacket and park admission. Any interested in sponsoring a student can find more information by reaching out to Sgt. Cullum at email@example.com