Zoe Groff was excited to visit Lauritzen Gardens with her twin sister, Chloe, this past spring. Instead, she spent the day in the hospital.
It’s a common occurrence in the 8-year-old’s life. Her many medical issues don’t always let her participate in fun events or outings.
But that day, she wasn’t alone in the hospital. Instead, she had Omaha police officers and a K-9 dog to keep her company. They came bearing gifts as well, including a unicorn balloon, which stood three feet high.
It’s all courtesy of Kids and Cops, a program that connects officers and children who face medical challenges in the Omaha area.
Zoe was born with hypoplastic left heart condition — a congenital heart defect in which the left side of the heart is underdeveloped — short bowel syndrome and a bleeding disorder called Factor VII deficiency.
“She’s a very happy-go-lucky child, but she gets sick easily,” said her mom, Lacey Groff. “She can’t do a lot of things during cold and flu season or any time she’s susceptible to getting sick.”
The Lincoln family is grateful to Kids and Cops for the experiences they’ve given Zoe. The group teams up with local organizations such as Lauritzen Gardens, the Omaha Symphony and the Omaha Children’s Museum to host special and sometimes private events for kids who are ill or have disabilities that prevent them from attending events with the public.
Since 2016, the program has visited numerous hospitals and brought traffic cruisers, motorcycles, an ABLE 1 pilot, Tux the horse and therapy dogs to spend time with kids. They also host holiday events. Earlier this month, they went to the Ronald McDonald House for an end-of-the-summer party, which included games, races, piñatas and prizes.
When Lacey Groff heard about the Kids and Cops program, she reached out. While Zoe was hospitalized during the Lauritzen Gardens trip, Omaha Police Officer Katie Rath encouraged Chloe to still come, and she was able to bring gifts back for her sister. Rath also put together the team to visit Zoe in the hospital.
“It was a neat experience to see that they’d take time out of their busy schedule to visit a child in the hospital who they barely knew,” Groff said.
Since its inception, Rath estimates the group has helped hundreds of kids and their families across the Omaha area.
The program was started in 2016 through the Omaha Police Officers Association and the Omaha Police Department, but the idea came from Rath, who has been with the department for five years. Shortly after she started with the department, Rath participated in a Christmas event for kids at the Siena Francis House, put on by the police association. She loved the event and loved even more being able to help people — a big reason why she became a police officer.
“I thought, ‘We have all of these resources — helicopters, dogs, horses — why not put the two together?’ ” she said.
She proposed the Kids and Cops idea to the association. Soon after, the Omaha Police Department joined in.
Rath said the program is successful because of the amount of officers who volunteer their time. And it’s not only officers, but their families and children who put in work to make the events a reality.
“There are so many people who just do this out of the kindness of their hearts because they want to help these families,” she said. “They have fun and be silly; they do whatever they need to do to make the kids smile.”
Randi Peavy found out about the program through a special needs Facebook support group.
Her daughter, Bailey, has cerebral palsy from a virus she contracted in utero. She is in a wheelchair and is nonverbal, Peavy said.
It’s not always easy for the family to make it to events, but having the Kids and Cops program takes away a lot of the stress, Peavy said.
“I don’t have to advocate for or worry that Bailey will be excluded because of her limitations,” she said. “It’s amazing to have a support system there that knows her needs and asks about accommodations she may need.”
The first event they attended was an Omaha Symphony concert.
“I thought Bailey would be bored and not enjoy it, but she loved it,” Peavy said. “The cops always make her feel special.”
Bailey loves all the events, but her favorite is the Fairytale Ball at the Omaha Children’s Museum. Her mom said she looks forward to each event and seeing her police friends and the other children.
“I absolutely recommend the program,” she said. “They’re an amazing group of people.”