Steve “Slim” Stilts had no idea how deeply he would impact Blount County children in 2005, when his wife asked him how he wanted to observe a personal milestone.
“She asked me how I wanted to spend my 50th birthday and I didn’t want to to be just about me,” Stilts said. “I wanted to give back to the community.”
It didn’t take long for Blount County Sheriff James Berrong and Maryville Police Chief Tony Crisp to convince him that helping underprivileged children to enjoy Christmas might be the best gift possible.
“Hopefully, it gives the kids a positive attitude toward the cops as they grow up,” Stilts said.
Stilts joked folks confused his event, SlimFest, with the perennial diet food Slimfast when he threw his first community bash, but there was nothing scant about its impact on the Shop with a Cop program.
“It was so successful the first year, we raised $40,000,” Stilts said. “I felt we were onto something and just decided to continue it. I have probably 100 people now who help with it every year to make it successful.”
The program allows local police officers to take underprivileged children shopping each Christmas, providing items some may not get elsewhere.
“Shop with a Cop has been very fortunate to be with Steve since the beginning,” Blount County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Jarrod Millsaps said. “He’s helped to raise thousands and thousands of dollars for kids in the community to get Christmas presents. It’s been a blessing.”
Stilts said previously partnerships with the Children’s Advocacy Center, the Maryville and Alcoa Booster Club and the Junior Service League’s Toys for Blount County program raised $1 million over the past 13 years.
This year’s event also will benefit the Eagleton Ballpark, Millsaps said. Organizers also added a new event this year, a drawing for a $10,000 cash prize.
Stilts’ wife, Donna, missed the event to be in Dallas with their 10-day-old grandson, Ames, but Stilts made sure they were there in spirit.
The proud grandfather marked the occasion with a T-shirt showing the newborn and his 30-year-old sister, Elodie.
The crowd filled the event space before dark to scoop up some tasty barbecue and enjoy the music.
Representatives from the Officer Moats Foundation were on hand to discuss their work in funding scholarships for the children of local first responders.
A nearly-full moon that illuminated thick stacks of clouds made a beautiful backdrop as residents hit the dance floor.
Nuthin’ Fancy and the Smooth Groove Band kept the crowds dancing.
Knoxville line dance instructor Andi Dobson brought her group, the Dancing Friends, to entertain the crowd.
“We follow Smooth Groove a lot,” Dobson said.
Maryville resident Hobie Finger kept his wife, Sabrina, smiling as he tried out his dancing shoes — a pair of orange Crocs.
They were pleased at how quickly their 8-year-old rescue Boston terrier, Miss Piggy, overcame her fear of crowds to give out free kisses.
Finger, who grew up in Maryville, said he was glad the event benefited local children.
“I never got to go with the Shop With a Cop Program, but a lot of the kids in my school did,” Finger said. “It’s wonderful that they’ve got that going on.”
That was just the response Stilts was hoping for.
“I’ll keep doing it as long as the Good Lord blesses me,” Stilts said.