CAMDEN, N.J. — The young mother's voice is calm on the call, but there was no mistaking her desperation.
She was calling 911 because she had no food for her four children. With no phone service, the only way she could reach out for help was to call the emergency line, which is accessible even when a cellphone is deactivated.
"All I wanted to know ... If I could get some type of assistance," the young mother said in the Jan. 22 call. "I need somebody to come out ... I've been ... trying to find food for my children.
"My kids have not eaten since yesterday," she continued. "I'm waiting for my food stamps to come. ... "
"It was heartbreaking," said Tondaleya Bagby, a Camden County, N.J., dispatcher who overheard the call. She dispatched Camden County Police Officer David Hinton, with instructions to check on the family.
But the call stayed with her, and she knew she had to do more. Giving Hinton her cell number, she asked him to let her know what he found once he got there.
"I went inside and found a single mom and four kids in a one-bedroom apartment," said Hinton. "She told me she wasn't able to provide for them herself."
The cabinets were bare, he said. "The kids were excited to see a police officer, but they were hungry. I think she didn't know what else to do, but I'm glad she called the police."
Bagby told Hinton she wanted to get pizzas delivered to the apartment, but Hinton instead suggested going to McDonald's, where he bought Happy Meals and other food to hold the kids over until officers could do more.
Still, the call gnawed at Bagby.
"All day, I was thinking about the long-term, like, yes, they have food now, but what about tomorrow, next week, next month?"
She told Hinton she had to do more.
"I told him once I got off work, I would go back there with groceries," she said. "Then I texted my mom" — Camden County Sgt. Tracy Seigel — "and told her about the call, and said I was going out there by myself after work."
Seigel, worried for her daughter's safety in going alone at night to a neighborhood plagued by crime, answered like both a mom and a cop.
"She said, 'Uh, that's a negative,' " her daughter recalled.
Seigel laughed. "That's what I told her, yes."
Instead, Seigel enlisted some fellow officers, including recently retired Lt. Scott Bagby and Lt. Janelle Simpson and all of them pooled their money to buy 10 bags of groceries to get the family through the crisis, until more long-term assistance could be arranged.
Tondaleya Bagby, using her own money and what the officers gave her, went to an Aldi and a ShopRite, then she and Seigel went to the apartment.
"(The mother) answered the door, and all the kids were lined up behind her," said Bagby, who estimated the children's ages between 9 and 2 years old. "She was so grateful and appreciative, and the kids were so excited. It made my heart smile."
A mother herself, she imagined herself in the woman's place. "I think what she did was just what she had to do. Regardless of her situation and how hard it might be to ask for help, she did her job as a mother, to get help for her kids."
"The officers do things like this all the time," said Camden County spokesman Dan Keashen. In addition to getting food for the family, the department also provided her with a navigator to assist with social services.
Seigel and Hinton, cited by the department as its Officers of the Week, both shrugged off the notion that they did anything more than their jobs.
"We're there to protect and serve," Seigel said. "And 'serve' in every sense. We're police officers but we're human beings first."
She is proud of Bagby, her own daughter, and the "warm, giving heart" she showed in helping a young mother in need.
"She doesn't have a lot of money, but she found a way," she said. It's not unusual for her, though, Seigel said.
"It pulls at my heartstrings as a mother to know my daughter is so passionate about helping people," she said proudly.
"She always says kids are her kryptonite."
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