What began as a policeman's inquiry into one boy's safety, ended in an act of kindness that went above and beyond the call of duty to help out a Texas family facing financial hardship.
Officer James Riley, a police officer who works in Austin, received an anonymous call on June 3 from someone who said they were worried about a young boy seen walking by himself in a 7-Eleven parking lot.
When Riley showed up to the scene, the boy (whose family has asked to remain anonymous) was on the sidewalk near the store.
"People thought he was like 5- or 6-years old because he wasn't too tall. But when I asked him how old, he said almost 10," Riley told TODAY Food. "The whole time he was talking to me holding a tray with two Slurpees and a couple of Pop-Tarts, he was adamant about wanting to leave — not because he was scared, but because he had to get somewhere."
That somewhere was back home to his younger brother.
Riley explained to TODAY that he evaluated the boy's situation and found no "unreasonable risks of harm" as classified by Texas law on "abandoning or endangering a child" less than 15-years-old.
"[Child abandonment and endangerment] is circumstantial. In this case, when I observed him beforehand, he was up and paying attention, walking diligently. He knew what he was doing and was watching for cars," Riley said. "But I wasn't gonna say, 'OK have a nice life, little guy.' And I didn't want his Slurpees to melt, so I offered him a ride home."
Riley asked to enter the boy's home to ensure that everything was safe, and discovered the boy's younger brother, 8, waiting for his 7-Eleven snack. Riley learned that the boys' mother, whom they live with, was at work. During the week between their school ending and camp beginning, she had no other option but to leave them home alone.
When Riley called her, the boys' mother said she knew nothing about her elder son leaving the house by himself, and said that she had advised they both to stay put so a neighbor or friend could check on them. Riley also noticed the fridge and pantry weren't stocked with the kind of food young kids could prepare for themselves.
"After talking to her a bit, I learned it was a tough time for them. It was week two of her not receiving her benefits and it wouldn't be resolved for at least another week. More or less, she said they were getting by," Riley said. But she added that "getting by would probably be a stretch."
Riley advised the woman on some options to aid financial hardship — from using the nearby church as a resource to calling the police department. But he felt as though that advice wasn't enough.
He left the boys' home and headed to a grocery store. With his own money, plus some additional funds from his sergeant and another officer, Riley purchased a cart full of easy-to-make snacks and meals for the family.
On Monday, the Austin Police Department's Facebook page posted a picture of the groceries Riley and others helped purchase. The post has garnered over 4,200 likes and more than 1,000 comments, with many of them praising the men behind the kind act.
"Thank you for being such a standup member of our community. Compassion is a beautiful gift to give," said one commenter.
Said another, "This officer's actions, both educational and financially helpful, were absolutely amazing."
Many others wondered if there was a fund they could donate to that would help reimburse the officers who paid for the food themselves.
"Some comments have been that it wasn't too healthy, but my goal wasn't to get super healthy stuff," Riley told TODAY. "I wanted to get them snack food they could eat and big meals that mom could make and take to work next day — and to stretch it out as long as possible."
When Riley returned to the house, he said that the boys helped him put everything away. Then they sat down, at the officer's request, to do their summer reading and finish up any chores to make their mom happy.