End of an era

Rizzo PAL held its annual holiday party, which is the final one for center director Police Officer Ernie Rehr.

Starstruck: Kara Jones, 6, gives Santa a handmade letter upon his arrival to the Rizzo PAL holiday party. MELISSA KOMAR / STAR PHOTO

By Melissa Komar

Chants of “Santa” reached a fever-pitch when the Big Man himself walked onto the basketball court at Rizzo PAL last Wednesday night in Port Richmond.

One child, Kara Jones, 6, sprinted to him unprompted, hand outstretched to deliver him a hand-drawn letter, as staff, parents and fellow PAL participants looked on.

Nearly 100 children were enjoying the annual holiday party, a tradition center director Police Officer Ernie Rehr has been involved with for almost three decades.

“I have hosted, taken kids to and otherwise been a part of holiday parties at Rizzo PAL for 28 years,” said Rehr, who will retire this year. “Twenty-eight years is a long time, and this was my last year hosting the party. Hopefully, I will come back in some capacity next year after retirement.”

Rehr was quick to remind the kids, although this would be his final holiday party, there was still work to done.

“Yes, this is my last party, but we still have practice next week for the parents versus kids game,” he said. “You are 28–0, and we’re going to keep that going.”

After Rehr’s quick pep talk, each child, some representing other PAL centers, had the opportunity to personally meet Santa, whose special helpers were 24th Police District Capt. Stephen Clark and elf Angelina Wainwright, a former PAL kid and longtime volunteer.

After their visit, each kid picked out a toy.

Kara, who is in her first year of playing basketball and soccer at PAL, chose a barbie.

“It’s great,” she said, her excitement bubbling over. “My favorite part was taking a picture with Santa.”

Kara is what Rehr calls a “second-generation kid.” Her mom, Sarah Jones, who grew up in Port Richmond, started going to PAL around Kara’s age.

“I did it, too,” she said. “And, Officer Ernie was always so good with us, I knew he would be good with [Kara], too.”

Second-generation kids: Pictured are (bottom row, from left) Braeden’s little sister, Braeden Cullen, Kara Lynn Jones, Stephen Korpuze, Santa (Ed Knox), (top row, from left) former Rizzo PAL Kids Brandon Cullen, Stephen Korpuze and Sarah Jones (nee Lorch) stand with Officer Ernie Rehr. PHOTO COURTESY OF ERNIE REHR

Sadie McDermott, 10, is following in the footsteps of her older siblings, who are now in their 20s.

“It’s nice, and Santa was fun,” she said.

Sadie chose an air hockey game. Her first opponent? Her 22-year-old brother.

“He is going to like that pick, too,” said Sadie’s mom, Michelle McDermott, laughing.

“It’s really wonderful, everything they do for the kids is so generous,” she added. “I grew up in the neighborhood, and Officer Ernie was always inviting the kids to PAL.”

Aside from getting a gift, each child made a holiday-themed craft, cards for their parents and Santa, and had a spread of pizza, snacks and juice.

Funding for the party was made possible through PAL board member Sylvia Nisenbaum and her husband, Harvey, the Rizzo PAL Adopt-a-Center sponsors, and PAL board member Linda Madway and her husband, Bill.

For Rehr, who has worn many hats over the 28 years of holiday parties including host, toy purchaser, arts and crafts coordinator, photographer, Santa’s helper and center decorator, none of it would be possible without help.

From PAL police officers and the PAL civilian staff, to the PAL board of directors and PAL volunteers, it’s a collaborative effort from start to finish.

And, while much time and people are necessary to put on the party, it’s worth the kids’ reactions, according to Rehr.

“It’s making the holidays just a little bit brighter for the children,” he said. “I have heard many times over the years, that the toy a PAL kid gets is the best one he or she gets for Christmas. That says a lot and makes what we do so rewarding.” ••