On the first stop of a surprise holiday shopping spree inside the Riverhead Target, Valery, an Aquebogue Elementary School student, headed straight to the toy section.
When the young girl spotted something she liked, she politely turned to Leanne Simonsen, who accompanied her as she shopped, and asked if she could have it.
Of course, Ms. Simonsen would reply each time. After all, this day was about her.
“I would have bought her the whole store if I could have,” Ms. Simonsen said.
To help spread some holiday cheer, particularly during a year where so many families are struggling, Ms. Simonsen and the foundation she helps run in memory of her late husband, NYPD Det. Brian Simonsen, teamed up with another police organization and others to organize a special day for a deserving youngster in Riverhead Town.
When Valery, 7, arrived at Target last Tuesday with her mother, Ana, they thought she was going to pick out one toy.
But that was just the start.
Valery was given free reign throughout the store to fill up her cart with holiday presents. The girl’s mother was taken aback by the generosity.
“She was crying, too,” Ms. Simonsen said. “She couldn’t believe it.”
Valery picked out L.O.L. dolls, new shoes and a backpack, the first one she’s owned.
“She was so happy and grateful,” Ms. Simonsen said of Valery.
They were joined on the shopping spree with a furry friend: K9 Hugh of the NYPD, a black Labrador Retriever. The holiday shopping spree was part of a “Shop with a K9” event that featured the nonprofit Blue Lives Matter-NYC K9. Hugh was with his handler, NYPD officer Anel Capursi.
Ms. Simonsen, who lives in Calverton, said Lindsay Ekizian from Blue Lives K9 reached out to see if the Simonsen Foundation would be interested in joining their effort. Also joining the effort was Phil Alvarez, who’s been an advocate for first responders who suffered illnesses linked to 9/11 after his brother, Luis, of Oceanside died of colorectal cancer. Luis Alvarez had been fierce advocate for the Sept. 11th Victim Compensation Fund.
To help find a deserving student, they reached out to the Riverhead School District. The staff at Aquebogue Elementary School connected them with Valery and her mom.
“She is a doll and was beyond appreciative for this amazing gift,” said Melissa Peeker, a member of the Simonsen Foundation, who participated in the shopping spree with her young daughter.
Ms. Simonsen said as they were shopping, a man came up to her and said how he had been having a rough day. But seeing the generosity for a young girl at the holidays changed his entire day.
“It was so nice to hear,” she said.
At one point, Valery’s mom asked why she had been chosen.
“We just told her, we spoke with the principal and the principal felt she was a good girl and a deserving girl,” Ms. Simonsen said.
A social worker at the school who helped pick Valery as the recipient told the group that the family had recently been facing hard times when a tree fell on their home during a storm.
Ms. Simonsen became choked up as she recalled the experience.
It has been nearly two years since her husband died in the line of duty while responding to a robbery in Queens. Each day presents a challenge as she adjusts to a life without him.
The shopping spree represented more than just a fun afternoon for one young girl. For Ms. Simonsen, it was a breakthrough to experience an element of joy that had gone missing since that fateful day in February 2019.
“I said to everybody, this is the first time since Brian died that I actually felt pure joy,” she said. “This little girl gave me pure joy.”
The hope is to build on this year’s giveaway to make it bigger next year by raising more funds through donations so additional kids can benefit.
“There were tears and laughs and honestly it did more for us then we did for her because this is what Christmas is about,” Ms. Peeker said.