A couple and their toddler were passing through Sacramento on a frigid night two years ago when they found themselves stranded - their car nearly out of gas, their wallets emptied by emergency car repairs, their bank accounts awaiting a wire that wouldn't come until morning.
But even after a flurry of phone calls, Sacramento police dispatcher Sarah Kern couldn't find them any help. So she told them she was sorry, left work for the night and headed to Target to buy her daughter some shoes.
She didn't get far. A few minutes down the road, Kern turned around.
That night, Kern offered up $60 of her own money, plus $20 from a co-worker, to help the family get a room for the night and gas up the car. Her fellow dispatchers filled a bag with snacks that Kern handed over with the cash.
"They were just unbelievably grateful - just good people in a bad circumstance," Kern recalls of the couple en route from Washington to Reno. "I was dumbfounded there was nothing for them."
That night became the foundation of the Sacramento Community Cares Program, a project Kern officially launched this year with the help of fellow dispatcher Kindra Quinton. The nonprofit hosted by the Sacramento Police Foundation is designed to help those in dire, though temporary, need.
The program provides short-term necessities such as bus or train tickets, diapers or gas cards. Kern said several companies have been gracious with donations, including Amtrak and Greyhound. The program does not hand out cash.
It also does not cater to the homeless or those with long-term challenges, Kern said. Instead, the goal is to help folks who just need a hand up.
"We come into contact with people who are really good people, but they are just down on their luck," said Kern, who has been a dispatcher for 13 years. "Because we're open 24 hours, I thought it would be a perfect way ... to get them that emergency, short-term assistance."
Kern's project is in its infancy, but already it is generating buzz in the Police Department. Next month, Kern will be honored as the agency's non-sworn staff member for 2012, and Chief Sam Somers Jr. gave her a shout-out at his swearing-in ceremony in February.
"I find it refreshing," Kern's supervisor, Capt. Mike McCarthy, said of the program. "It helps remind me of why I got into law enforcement in the first place. It really is public service."
The project launched in January, largely because of a $1,000 grant from Target. Previously, any assistance came at Kern's personal expense or that of a few of her co-workers. Kern hopes a fundraiser scheduled for May 3 will expand the program's coffers.
Because of the limited budget, the Sacramento Community Cares Program is largely referral-based, helping people who come into contact with patrol officers or dispatchers who find them worthy candidates.
"It's building trust with the community and giving the officers the outlet to do that without them reaching into their own pockets - and they do that a lot," Kern said. "They don't have to do that now."
In December, two patrol officers came across a young woman panhandling near a freeway onramp, tears streaming down her face. They learned she had gone to Arizona to visit a cousin, who turned out to be a drug addict who stole her money.
She tried to get home to Oregon, but ran out of resources in Sacramento.
"Being completely new to the area, broke and stranded, the only thing I could think of to do was what I had observed transients doing: Holding a sign at an intersection in hope for help," she wrote in a thank-you email to the officers.
The officers bought her a warm meal and put her on a bus home. Unknown to the young woman, Kern reimbursed those officers with funds from the Sacramento Community Cares Program.
"These two gentlemen were my Christmas miracle, and without them I would not have made it home for the holidays, if not at all," she wrote.
Kern recalled another example from December, when a fellow dispatcher gave $20 of her own money to a man in need. Desperate for a job, he came to Sacramento for an interview, even though he didn't have enough money to return home. Sure enough, he ended up stuck.
"He was so grateful he gave her the only thing he had, which was a ring," Kern said. "She wears it on her thumb to remind her to pay it forward."
McCarthy nominated Kern for the department recognition. He described her as compassionate, with a "big heart and a warm regard for all people."
"We have a lot of talented, caring people at the communications center, and Sarah right now is our shining example of that," the captain said. "It's a vivid reminder (that) what we do every day makes a difference in people's lives."
Call The Bee's Kim Minugh, (916) 321-1038. Follow her on Twitter @kim_minugh.