They call him Big Chris.
He wears size 14 shoes. He is 6-feet-5. He weighs 280 pounds. And when he reports for work, his work weight is heavier than that – he wears a thick, black duty belt with a 9mm handgun holstered to it, and a Wichita Police Department badge on the tan shirt covering his bullet-proof vest.
At David Rosen’s pediatric oncology office in Wichita, the cancer patients call Officer Chris Robinson “friend.” The nurses say he’s a good man.
“We call him,” said Kim Rosen, a nurse and Rosen’s wife. “And he gets back to us right away.”
The cancer patients at Rosen’s office are kids. One out of five of the patients in Rosen’s office will die in childhood from the cancer he’s treating. Many come from families so poor that their parents struggle to find Christmas gifts. And that’s where Robinson steps in with his size-14 shoes.
He grew up poor, too.
But every December for 13 years now, Robinson shows up with hands full.
Part of why Robinson does what he does every Christmas to salve poverty with giving is because he knows the ties between poverty and disillusion and violence. He’s seen all of the above. He remembers hearing a peculiar sound one night, when he and other officers showed up at a domestic violence call. Somebody took a shot at them.
“I heard the bullet go through tree branches over our heads,” he said the other day. “It sounded like ch-ch-ch-ch-ch, as it cut through the branches.”
He’s never had to shoot anybody, but he’s been in fights.
Some parents became poor because, as he puts it, they chose poverty. He says they made choices – instead of education and jobs, they chose drugs, alcohol, domestic violence, crime. But he says he has never met a kid who chose to be poor.
“The poor kids I’ve ever seen, they are stuck in situations not under their control,” he said. “House run by single mom. Dad left. The kid has four or five siblings. The food – limited. The clothes – old.”
The bare insides of those houses look familiar. In Paola, Kan., Robinson, as he describes it, “grew up on government cheese.” He ate the free cheese and free cheaply made noodles, and the rice and dried milk and chips and peanut butter handed out from pantries supplied by federal government subsidy programs. Dessert at dinner was popcorn in a bag. The house leaked all over. It housed 10 kids, two parents, and one bathroom.
The thing he learned there is that if you reach out to children , if your parents and teachers and coaches and ministers and local cops reach out before it’s too late, you can coax or inspire or guide some of them. While giving gifts, he tells kids to stay in school, get a job someday, like he did.
At Pittsburg State, where he played basketball and ran track, he studied to be a physical rehabilitation therapist. He got a job at Via Christi. One day, he laughed and joked and worked with a kid who appeared to be in a great mood. Afterward, after the kid left, the other people in the room told Robinson that kid had cancer.
He heard the kid didn’t live much longer after that.
Not long after, Chris Robinson did what he had long wanted to do. He joined the Wichita Police Department 15 years ago.
Commanders told him to find a way to help the community, beyond patrol work. So he’s thought about poverty, and those 10 kids in one house. Then he thought about the cancer kid, and hooked up with Rosen, the pediatric oncologist, who treats 35 to 40 cancer kids every year.
Many of Rosen’s patients are kids from western Kansas, sons and daughters of poor people, families with resources drained from poverty, from driving in for frequent leukemia treatments, from medical bills.
He started giving gifts to kids with cancer 13 years ago, when the economy was booming. When he asked people in the community for donations, they gave. He had corporate sponsors who helped big, including Boeing and Wal-Mart. Within a few years, Officer Chris Robinson was giving gift cards, trips to ball games, and money and movie tickets and restaurant meals to up to 100 kids and their families, at Christmas, Thanksgiving, and through the year.
It’s all dried up since then.
He does what he can. He collected enough this year to give gifts to two families at Thanksgiving, and three this Christmas. Students and a teachers at Brooks Technology andArts Magnet Middle School gave him $200. Fellow officers at Patrol East gave him another $100. As a result, he told the kids at Brooks, a 9-year-old girl and a 6-year-old boy under the care of Rosen are going to get “a decent Christmas.”
“It’s disheartening, that I’m doing so much less,” he said. “I wish I could do more. You gotta give back, right?”
He realized this all too well one day, at home, when he looked around and asked his son a question. Both his sons, ages 15 and 13, play basketball, like their Dad. Isaiah, 15, wears size 14.5 shoes — and Robinson could see that Isaiah’s new shoes were missing.
“Isaiah,” Robinson said. “Where are your Nikes?”
“I gave them away,” Isaiah said.
Robinson got steamed.
“Hey,” Isaiah said. “That kid, the guy I play basketball with?”
“Yeah?” Robinson said. A kid from a high-crime neighborhood. Poor.
“I gave the shoes to him,” Isaiah said.
Robinson, irritated already, got more irritated.
“Those Nikes cost $112,” Robinson said.
Isaiah looked unimpressed.
“Dad,” Isaiah replied. “That kid has NOTHING.”
Robinson wanted to argue, but he stopped.
He thought it through.
At first he stayed mad. But he came around, and bought Isaiah another pair of shoes.
When he tells the story now, he grins.
“I guess my kid learned something, huh?”