Stuffed animals provide SAFE connection in Itawamba County

By Adam Armour/The Itawamba County Times

“In the back of a deputy’s car, you’ll probably find a shotgun or a rifle, but this right here …”

Itawamba County Sheriff Chris Dickinson lifted one teddy bear from the stack of dozens recently donated to his department as part of the Stuffed Animals for Emergency program, or SAFE. It was the traditional kind — covered in brown fuzz with a black button for a nose. Around its neck, it was wearing a peach-colored ribbon.

The sheriff held the toy out. “This, in certain situations, is the most important tool a deputy has in his car,” he said.

This bear, and approximately 100 more recently donated to the Itawamba County Sheriff’s Department by the Houston Community Pilot Club, will be loaded into a deputy’s car and later given to a small child. At this point, it’s not clear who or when, but it’ll happen.

According to sheriff’s department deputy Jason Dickinson, that’s the sad part. The toys are given away to children who deputies encounter while out on call. They may be at the scene of an accident or at home when officers respond to a call of domestic violence. Likely, they’ll be scared, and the presence of law enforcement probably won’t be helping.

“This stuff is scary,” he said, indicating all of this gear — the badge, the belt, the taser and the gun. “We want the child to know that we’re there to help them; we want to give them comfort and to let them know that we’re there for them

“This,” he said, holding up a rainbow-splashed bear, “is a tool that we can use to let kids know that when law enforcement shows up, we’re the good guys. This is their comfort zone.”

The deputy added that, oftentimes, kids are afraid of law enforcement officials because parents use them as a sort of real-world “boogey man.”

A lot of parents use us to scare children,” Jason Dickinson said. “They’ll tell their kids to, ‘Buckle up, or the police will come get you’ or something like that. When a child sees us, they’re afraid. We don’t ever want them to be scared to talk to us.”

The sheriff said different groups — civic organizations and local daycares — donate bears throughout the year. His department also gives away blankets, like a batch recently donated by the Itawamba Baptist Association. He said these small comforts can make a big difference.

“It does so much good, and I think it does as much good for the deputy as it does the child,” the sheriff said. “You’re in a crisis situation; your life has been turned upside down. Initially, the deputy is the person who stands in the gap. The deputy is handing them that proverbial olive branch.”

For more information on SAFE or to make a donation of a teddy bear, contact the Itawamba County Sheriff’s Department at 862-3401.

adam.armour@journalinc.com