Police officers come through for single mom, kids

By Jennifer Sullivan, Staff Writer, posted 1/6/00

Sarasota Herald Tribune newspaper

Ken Halpin is a former Metuchen resident, and a MHS graduate (class of 1975). He lives with his wife, Dee, and his children in Sarasota, Fla. His parents still live in Metuchen. Crashing into the back of a car proved to be a good thing for Jennie Burwell and her family.

The week before Christmas, the 36-year-old single mother and her two sons were barely getting by on her paychecks from a local government job. They could barely afford to buy food, let alone gifts, with the $80 they had left after bills were paid.

And just when it seemed that things couldn't get much worse, Burwell slammed into the back of another car.

When Sarasota police Officer Ken Halpin arrived at the accident, Burwell was crying. While her boys sat in the back seat, Burwell told Halpin that she couldn't afford an increase in her $50-a-month car insurance. She said the family's first Christmas since they had been on their own was in doubt.

Instead of filling out an incident report, Halpin, who has been a traffic officer for 13 years, ordered Burwell to follow his police car. They got out at the Waffle Stop, a Sarasota restaurant that Halpin co-owns with a civilian friend and another cop. He ordered the family plate after plate of steak and eggs.

"He was an angel from God. He didn't even know us but went into his own pocket to make sure we had food," Burwell said.

After hearing Burwell's story, one of the police department secretaries, who was eating lunch at the Waffle Stop, slipped Halpin $20 to give the family.

"Who could ignore her?" Halpin said of Burwell. "I felt really bad. There she was working, and she only had $30 or $40 leftover each paycheck." With only the clothes on their backs, Burwell and her sons, Lewis, 13, and Christian, 9, who are straight-A students at Booker Middle School and Alta Vista Elementary, respectively, fled from Burwell's live-in boyfriend in October.

"We had been homeless until the early part of November," Burwell said. A clerk at the Sarasota County Child Health Clinic said Burwell and her sons left their middle-class neighborhood and house full of clothes, toys and electronics and lived in homeless shelters.

But their luck began to change in November when their church, the Fellowship of Believers, found them a two-bedroom apartment in north Sarasota. The non-denominational church even furnished it.

The three then began to piece together their new lives, but something was missing. They had no food.

But their barren cupboards and empty stomachs were quickly filled after Halpin showed up at the accident Dec. 18.

"I was driving along on Orange Avenue, going across Main Street, and because I have an old car, I have old tires," Burwell said. Burwell said her mid-1980s station wagon slammed into a Buick in front of her afterthe Buick stopped for a pedestrian. She said the driver of the Buick told her not to worry. After Halpin arrived, the driver wished Burwell a merry Christmas and left.

Capt. Mikel Holloway said Halpin "did a fine thing."

"We are portrayed a lot of times as folks who do not care," Holloway said. "We all chipped in, and when push came to shove, we were willing to do something about it."

For the next three days, Carlene Harvin, who works at the police department, showed up at Burwell's apartment with bags of groceries.

"He (Halpin) told me about this family and said they didn't have food," Harvin said.

Harvin told her pastor at True Vine Missionary Baptist Church about the Burwells, and the church collected grocery money.

A new apartment and a kitchen full of food had been only a dream just a month before, so the Burwells never anticipated what happened next.

"On Wednesday (before Christmas), an officer came to my job and brought presents for the kids," she said. Burwell said she received Walmart gift certificates and toys.

The officers asked the family to come to the police department on Christmas Eve for more gifts, including cash, bicycles, compact-disc players and clothes, all paid for by the police officers.

Halpin said many people in the department considered the Burwells their "short-notice adopted family."

The Burwells' situation helped convince many in the department that a past tradition of helping others every holiday season should be revived.

"They sparked our interest because we used to adopt a family," Halpin said, adding that this was the first year he could remember that they hadn't adopted a family.

Burwell said she doesn't know what lies ahead for her family. Even though she still will have just $80 a month after bills, the family has enough food in their kitchen to last another month.
Jennie Burwell and her sons, Lewis, 13, and Christian, 9, say grace before having dinner in their Sarasota apartment.