Christmas champs

Nick Leo hugs 7th Police District’s community relations officer, Rich Simon, outside the Knowlton Mansion. MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO

Santa Claus took time out of his busy toy-making schedule to pay a special visit to some very special children in Fox Chase recently.

The jolly old elf in the bright red suit brought some early Christmas presents and a ballroom full of joy to Knowlton Mansion for the annual Fox Chase Champions holiday party on Dec. 6. Kris Kringle also brought some eccentric friends with him, particularly a giant green furry creature from the Galapagos Islands known as the Phillie Phanatic.

About 100 special-needs children and young adults enjoyed the afternoon fete with their families and a vast network of local contributors led by police officers from the 7th district.

“This is something they look forward to every year,” said Champions President Matt McDonald. “One of the moms said that her son had his outfit laid out for three weeks.”

“It’s our signature event,” added Champions Treasurer Peggy Van Belle. “They get to see Santa, get presents, see the Phanatic and dance.”

Jim Palmer founded the Champions in 1994 at Fox Chase Recreation Center as a sports program for kids living with mental and physical challenges. Fox Chase Soccer Club was a founding partner in the nonprofit organization, which soon expanded to include indoor soccer, bowling and baseball. The program now serves about 120 participants from age 3 to 23. All activities are free to the players and their families, who hail from throughout the city and nearby suburbs.

For several years, the organization held its annual holiday party at Arthur’s Caterers at Bustleton Avenue and Byberry Road in Somerton. When the catering business closed about 15 years ago (it’s now the site of a Walgreen’s store), the Champions needed a new host site.

Around the same time, the Shriners closed their children’s hospital at Roosevelt Boulevard and Strahle Street. For years, the officers of the 7th district had been hosting an annual holiday party for the patients there.

“The Shriners moved out of the area and the 7th district adopted us,” McDonald said.

Jack Conroy, owner of Conroy Catering, also jumped to support the cause by offering his Knowlton Mansion banquet facility. The 7th district’s community relations officer, Rich Simon, has been the event’s chief organizer and fundraiser for the last 13 years along with his wife, Mary Ellen.

“Rich and his wife should get all the credit for it,” said Capt. Michael Gormley, the 7th district commander. “It’s a good way for us to interact with the community and to have a positive influence on children who normally wouldn’t have interactions with police. And it makes the officers involved feel like they’re doing something good. It’s a positive experience for both the kids and the officers.”

In addition to providing the upscale banquet room, Conroy donated a buffet of fun lunchtime foods like hot dogs and hamburgers, roast beef and pasta salad. Party-goers also had Philly Soft Pretzel Factory pretzels and cake from the Dining Car. Conroy’s staff generously donated their time to the cause. DJ Mark Mroz of Celebration Sound provided the dance tunes. Mroz is also the community relations officer in the 2nd Police District.

As a gaggle of clowns mingled with their balloon animals and gentle slapstick, the Phanatic made his grand entrance as the immediate center of attention. He boogied atop the bar and led a conga line through a maze of dining tables. He also used his pelt to buff McDonald’s bald head into a shimmer.

Just as the Phanatic yielded the dance floor, Santa landed on the roof of the Frank Furness-designed Gothic Revival residence and slid down the chimney to take his place among the eager throng. He handed out gift cards to the good boys and girls and posed for snapshots. Each youngster received a Polaroid to take home as a memento of the gala affair. ••

Spreading holiday cheer: Above, the Nicholl family enjoys festivities at the Fox Chase Champions holiday party. Pictured are (from left) Ella, 6, Chrissy, Clare, 8 months, and Kennedy, 4. MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO

Joy to the world: Kate Meyers and her daughter, Lily, smile at the Fox Chase Champions annual holiday party on Dec. 6. About 100 special-needs children and young adults enjoyed the event with their families and a vast network of local contributors led by police officers from the 7th district. MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO