In the cafeteria of Roselawn Condon School, more than 100 children with disabilities and 60-plus volunteers are singing Christmas songs around the piano, dancing with foam reindeer antlers bobbing on their heads and scooping the last spoonfuls of ice cream on their holiday cake. Suddenly a peal of bells cuts through the din and a shout erupts.
The children rush into Santa’s arms, and into one of the longest and most loved holiday traditions of the Rotary Club of Cincinnati.
For close to 90 years, the Cincinnati Rotarians have been bringing Christmas to students in Cincinnati’s first school for children with disabilities.
“The Rotary helped start the school,” said Mary Ronan of Anderson Township, former Cincinnati Schools Superintendent and a Rotary Club member.
Rotary’s first and biggest gift happened around 1919, when the Rotary and Junior League realized that Greater Cincinnati children with significant orthopedic disabilities were not part of any school program. The two service clubs created classes in Cincinnati’s General Hospital, providing teachers and equipment and a Rotary bond that continues today.
In the early years, Rotary helped fund staff, bought band instruments and supplies, and always held a Christmas party. The classes grew, drawing children with disabilities from across the city. In 1925, those classes became a full school when the Cincinnati Public School system opened the Randall J. Condon School for Crippled Children – a cutting edge program for children with physical disabilities.
In 1982, Condon School merged with Roselawn School, creating Roselawn Condon School in Roselawn, providing individual support and a challenging academic curriculum for children with physical and developmental challenges.
This year 113 students attended the Rotary Christmas party. “Some are medically fragile. Others have developmental disabilities or physical disabilities,” said Ronan.
“Eighty percent of the children in Cincinnati Public Schools live in poverty,” Ronan said. “For of lot of these children, this is their big Christmas celebration. For some it’s the only gift they’ll get.”
The gifts are part of the Rotary tradition. Teachers help children prepare wish lists that are hung on a giving tree at the Rotary Club meetings. When Santa arrives at the party, his Rotarian “elves” carry boxes of wrapped presents to each class table. The gifts were personally selected by rotary members to fill each child’s wish – Spider Man web slingers, fire trucks, dolls, a party dress that sparkles, a doll house, games.
This year the Rotary also presented the school with a check for $500 to buy needed sensory equipment.
“The kids talk about the Rotary party for months ahead.,” said Sharon Smith of Riverside, senior support specialist for Roselawn Condon School. “A lot of these kids have never experienced something that is all about them. It’s so exciting.”
The Rotary members bring the party as well as the gifts. They haul in decorations, balloons, cakes, crafts and games to keep the children entertained. Rotarian Vince Hartmann of White Oak chairs the event, with each of the 60 volunteers assigned a task. Lawyer Richard La Jeunesse of Oakley is a magician. Jen Barrett of xxx plays carols on the school piano. Rotarians lead craft activities, cut and carry cake, distribute gifts and help children unwrap them to ooos and ahhhs. There’s even a tool belt crew to put in batteries and assemble toys.
“You think we’re the experts at keeping the kids entertained, but the Rotary is amazing. They never allow down time,” said Smith. “They go from one activity to another and keep the kids involved. They know what they’re doing and they do it well,” said Smith.
Al Koncius, president of the Rotary Club of Cincinnati, has been volunteering at the Christmas party for more than 20 years.
“The Condon School party is the start of Christmas, for the kids and for us,” he said. “Look at their faces. That’s Christmas.”