Christmas comes early for local children

By: Maria Allard | Warren Weekly | Published December 16, 2020

 Carlson Elementary School kindergarten student Zayden Czebieniak shops for toys at Meijer with firefighter Joel Ricketts Dec. 8.

Carlson Elementary School kindergarten student Zayden Czebieniak shops for toys at Meijer with firefighter Joel Ricketts Dec. 8.

Photo by Deb Jacques

 Checking out the Hot  Wheels is McKinley kindergarten student Gabriel Beccerra with  Warren firefighter Joel Ricketts.

Checking out the Hot Wheels is McKinley kindergarten student Gabriel Beccerra with Warren firefighter Joel Ricketts.

Photo by Deb Jacques


WARREN — The calendar read Dec. 8, but it already felt like Christmas morning for Zayden and Nathaniel Czebieniak.

The brothers picked up several new toys during the evening as the Warren Fire Department held its 14th annual Shop with a Firefighter at Meijer.

WFD members let the Christmas spirit ring when they took 30 Van Dyke Public Schools students from Carlson, Lincoln and McKinley elementary schools on a shopping spree at the store’s 12 Mile and Mound roads location. The Meijer corporation provided each student with a $100 gift card. Each child was paired up with a firefighter, and together they shopped for Barbies, Nerf footballs, board games, remote control cars, L.O.L. Surprise Dolls and more.

“This is beautiful. It was nice,” said Zayden and Nathaniel’s mom Kimberly Czebieniak, who attended with husband Neil Czebieniak. “I got to watch the firefighters work with all of the kids. Zayden had his cart filled quickly. It helps with Christmas. This is awesome that they do this. This is special. A lot of kids look up to these guys.”

Because of COVID-19, Czebieniak hasn’t brought her children out much, even to stores. When the family learned the boys, who attend Carlson, were chosen for the night of shopping, “Zayden wanted to know if his classmates would be here. They miss their friends.”

Nathaniel said the event was “good” because he got to “buy stuff.” He strolled the toy aisles with his personal shopper, Firefighter Matt Walsh.

“He was very good. He was very meticulous,” Walsh said. “He wanted to make sure he got the most of his value.”

Walsh has participated in the program for five years.

“It’s probably my favorite event we put on,” Walsh said. “To see the kids’ faces and how happy they are. We’re just trying to help everyone out.”

Zayden picked items off the shelves with Firefighter Joel Ricketts, who has been a part of the department’s Shop with a Firefighter every year since coming to Warren seven years ago.

“Just the look on the kids’ faces,” Ricketts said. “It’s the most genuine happiness kids feel. You can’t get that anywhere else.”      

School personnel select students. The idea for Shop with a Firefighter came from WFD Lt. Jim Hill.

“We do a lot of student education in the schools. We could see there was a need in the school system,” Hill said. “Most of our runs during the Christmas season, a lot of trees are bare underneath. We wanted to provide these kids some form of Christmas.”

Hill contacted Meijer to see if the retailer would support the program.

“We do a lot to give back to the community in which we serve,” Store Director Kim Tillman said. “For me to work for a company that gives back like we do, it’s very satisfying.”

Hill never has any trouble finding enough firefighters to help the kids shop. In past years, all 30 students and firefighters showed up at the same time to stock up on toys. To prevent the spread of COVID-19 this year, the students were scheduled to shop in groups of five at a time, and everyone wore masks.

“This is one of our biggest get-togethers. All the guys still come out to do it,” Hill said. “To see the kids, it’s always a fun time. It helps to build a bond between the kids in the community and the local firefighters. We want them to know the fireman are on their side. We definitely will continue as long as Meijer keeps supporting it. I can’t thank Meijer enough.”

Along with the firefighters, Meijer cashiers Fran Zick, Sue Stys and Holly Renaud were on hand to help organize the event and ring up the purchases.

With Firefighter Nick Belsky by her side, McKinley first grader Ariana Hicks packed her cart with several items, including snacks. She bought strawberries for her brother, “’cause he’s nice,” and cupcakes for herself. Hicks said the event was “good, ’cause I like to do math.” Staying within her budget gave her some practice with addition and subtraction.

“I really appreciate it,” her mom, Sparkle Craft, said. “I’m grateful for them doing this.”    

On the afternoon of the event, Nickol and Tom Best received a phone call from the district to let them know their son Tadarrius was chosen for the program. Brother Treson came along as a spectator. Both attend McKinley.

Tadarrius, a second grader, will spend his Christmas vacation from school playing with his new toys that include a Totally Twisted 4x4 remote control truck, a remote control police car, and wrestling action figures A.J. Styles and Triple H. Tadarrius said he will let his older brother play with his toys.

“I loved walking around and seeing stuff,” Treson said of the event.

“It’s just nice to know there are people out there helping families and putting smiles on people’s faces,” Nickol Best said.