Rufus Brown hasn’t had it easy; he’s a single dad with sole custody of his six children in a rented green house that’s seen better days. Mr. Brown isn’t home when I park my car across the street, in front of a boarded-up house with a lone fence panel covered in blue graffiti. I get out of my car and watch Gulfport Police Detective Robert McLaughlin go around to the back of his white pickup truck and open the tailgate.
“What are all the bikes for?” one of Rufus’six children asks Detective McLaughlin, who’s unloading five new bikes from his pickup. The other five kids race around to the back of the truck.
“Whoa!” one of the kids says. As Officer Marie Lavigne unloads the smallest bike, with training wheels attached, the two youngest boys, with matching braids, begin an animated discussion in the language of preschoolers as to bike ownership.
“Hold on,” Officer Lavigne says to the tiniest boy. “I have a Ninja Turtle bike for you.”
Gaige, the three-year-old, races to it. His older brother, Gavin, decides to help get the bike out of the car. He turns the box over a few times, searching for a way to make his four-year-old arms reach around the massive blue and green box. Finally, he hoists it above his head, which disappears behind a picture of masked turtle, and marches into the house, his little brother not far behind.
A young woman, the one the kids call “step-mom,” comes out of the house, smiles, and then sighs.
“They need to have shoes on,” she says, and begins trying to herd the younger kids back inside. None of the children are biologically hers, but she looks after them while Rufus works at an auto sound booth at Skyway Mall.
That’s when Rufus drives up in an old, meticulously maintained brown Cadillac. Before he can get out, the kids converge on his car, chattering excitedly about their presents. The two dogs, Isabella and Kovu, sense the excitement and add a symphony of barks from the carport.
Rufus finally parks the car and shoos the kids inside, admonishing them to come back with shoes.
“We got a laptop!” one of the kids says, and indeed they have. When school starts again, the kids will be able to use their own computer to do their homework instead of waiting their turn at the Gulfport Public Library.
Abbey, 12, hugs each of the three police officers in thanks. She gives me a hug as well, and says thank you.
“I didn’t do it,” I tell her. “It was all the police.”
That’s not exactly true. It started with Officer Marie Lavigne, who met Gavin when he followed his brother Tyrone to school. Rufus was getting Gaige ready for preschool when Gavin slipped out. Officer Lavigne came to Gulfport Elementary to take Gavin home. She had seen the Gulfport family around town and noticed that while their clothes didn’t always fit, all the kids were polite and well-behaved.
“They never get into trouble,” she says. She admits she has a soft spot for kids and dogs.
“Live your life the way you want,” she says, “but the kids are all mine.”
Quietly, Officer Lavigne asked her coworkers who had kids if they had any toys or clothes she could get to the Childs Park family as well as another family in Gulfport, where a single mother didn’t have what she needed for her three boys.
Lieutenant Mary Farrand says Lavigne’s actions, more so than the notorious recent reports in the media, are more representative of most police officers.
“There’s so much bad about cops in the news right now,”she said. “We need a good cop story.”
When the Gulfport community learned of Lavigne’s one-cop campaign to help nine kids, donations started pouring in to the police station. All nine kids will have new bikes on Christmas morning, complete with locks. The Gulfport Police Department registered all the bikes and the laptop (donated by another local) serial number. All nine kids received clothes, used but clean, and the elementary-aged kids now have uniforms that fit them. Officer Lavigne bought them all new socks and underwear. Another Gulfport officer brought food to the families.
“I have to see past all that. I have to sift through it all,” Officer Lavigne said.
This Christmas morning, though, two local families have remote control toy cars and Magic Markers and coloring books and toys and kid-sized basketball hoops and things many people don’t think twice about, but to these nine children, they are luxuries.
And perhaps more importantly, more kids will grow up understanding that police officers who care about their community? That’s the face of most cops. Those other guys on the news? They’re the exception.
Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com.