Rotary’s Tradition Brings Christmas to Kids at Condon

Story by Peggy Hodgsen Kremer

More than 50 elves – most dressed in holiday sweaters and non-stop smiles – helped Santa throw a Christmas party that has been going on for more than a century for children with special needs.

The Rotary Club of Cincinnati’s annual gift-filled Christmas bash opened the holiday for close to 90 students at Roselawn Condon School on Dec. 5. The tradition reflects the Rotary’s 104-year history of support for the region’s first school serving children with significant disabilities. Many of the students’ families also face economic challenges that are magnified by medical needs.

“For some of these kids, this party is going to be the bright day of their Christmas season,” said Mary Brandstetter, who coordinated the party with her husband, Bob.

Teachers had helped students compile wish lists and Rotary members made those wishes come true with fluffy robes, Thomas the Tank Engine train sets, dolls, remote control cars and games.

The gifts were delivered by Santa and his lovely wife, known in Rotary circles as Bob McElroy and Nancy Riesz.  Janet Metzelaar played Christmas songs on the school piano. Bill Stille and Ed Devoid were part of the busy repair crew at the “Make it Go” table, assembling toys and inserting batteries. Other Rotary members and friends joined children at tables, helping them unwrap packages and work on holiday crafts and games.

Richard La Jeunesse amazed students with his feats of magic. Costumed mascots from the Cincinnati Reds generated smiles as they danced with students and delivered ice cream and cookies.

“The children look forward to this every year,” said Condon teacher Lauren Borcherding “It is an all-accepting environment and a party that is accessible and fun for the students.”

The Rotary Club of Cincinnati started Cincinnati’s first school for children with disabilities in 1919, when it created hospital-based classrooms and hired teachers to educate children who could not attend school because of their medical conditions.

Those early classes eventually became Condon School, which today is Roselawn Condon, a Cincinnati Public School that serves more medically fragile students and more children with multiple disabilities than any other school in the district.

Over the years, Rotary has provided accessibility aides for classrooms and students as well as the annual party that assures every child feels the magic of Christmas, said Mary Brandstetter.

 But the Rotary members get the biggest gifts, said Rotarian Michael Schatzman, who said the memories of student smiles have kept him coming back for 27 years. 

 “It’s part of my holiday tradition,” he said. “I don’t have kids of my own, so this is a really special time for me. I tell our new members, if you come to this once, you will come back.”

Schatzman wore a Christmas tree hat and a red nose that lights up. The nose has its own story. “Last year I sat next to a kid in a wheelchair. He could not hear and could barely see. His teacher said the color he sees best is red.”  As Schatzman’s red nose lit up, the child broke into an excited smile. He leaned forward and laid a hand gently on Schatzman‘s knee. “His teacher told me kids can sense a connection,” Schatzman said. “That moment was the best gift ever.”