The second grader walked into the gym at Richard Wright Elementary School and blinked hard at everything in front of her — a juggler, Spider-man shooting webs out of his hands, a place to decorate cupcakes, a table overflowing with books she could choose from — and was silent for a moment.
"Is this," she asked, "for me?"
It was. For 24 years, the nonprofit Rubye's Kids has been providing hundreds of children with the sort of holiday experience many of them will never forget – crafts and food, Santa and dancing, and, at the end of the day, bags stuffed with warm things to wear and toys to treasure.
The organization is named for Rubye Caesar, who was legendary in her North Philadelphia neighborhood for Christmas parties that somehow stretched to provide hot chocolate and small gifts for her own foster children, plus every needy kid she knew. Caesar died in 1995, and Roz Weiss, an Elkins Park woman who doesn't even celebrate Christmas, continued and expanded upon the celebrations in her friend's honor, starting a nonprofit to formalize the work.
"My mom would take things out of her own closet to give to others," said Joe Caesar, Rubye's son, who on Friday gave out yo-yos at one of the stations in Wright's transformed gym. "If she saw this, she'd be crying tears of joy."
Friday was Rubye's Kids final holiday bonanza, officials said. The organization's volunteers are aging, and the annual party — which costs $30,000, takes months to plan, and requires more than 100 people to staff — is getting to be too much. (The organization will continue to exist, throwing birthday parties for children in homeless shelters, sending deserving kids to camp, and more.)
Rubye's Kids' holiday party used to take over Girard College and serve children from several Philadelphia School District buildings, but for the final bash, the organization came to Wright, a K-5 school at 27th and Dauphin Streets in Strawberry Mansion.
Somehow, principal Jeannine Payne managed to keep the party a secret from all of her students and all but a few staffers. When volunteers showed up in classrooms with Santa hats and red Rubye's Kids T-shirts for each of the school's 376 students, even the teachers were floored.
"It's like having a surprise party thrown for you in your own house," said Payne.
More than three-quarters of Wright students live in poverty, and for many of them, the party — the act of 134 adults organized for the express purpose of making them happy — meant something profound, the principal said.
"It's very meaningful in a child's life to have moments of unadulterated joy, and if we don't provide those, some of them will never get it," said Payne. "What we get, more often than not, is children who have never experienced that."
Teyla Jones, a third grader, kept staring at the photo in her hand, a picture of her sitting on Santa's lap, holding the doll she chose from the room stuffed with balls and board games, musical instruments and Lego sets.
"We did super-fun things," said Teyla, 8. But maybe her favorite thing, she said, was the ornament she made for her brother "because I love him."
She carefully wrote out a tag – "Wali, I got a gift for you" — and planned to surprise him.
"Now he has a present too," Teyla said, smiling.
Down the hall, Weiss ran around the gym, making sure volunteers had water, ensuring that SpongeBob had a handler, directing an errant kindergartner back to his class. She was in her glory.
She paused in front of the poster of Caesar propped up on a black easel near the DJ table. Weiss takes it everywhere — to board meetings, to shelter events.
"Her spirit inspired all of this," said Weiss, 70, who met Caesar when Caesar became a patient of Weiss' husband, Don, a chiropractor. "I think she would be amazed."
Weiss' daughter Amy Martin, 45, said the last party was a little bittersweet: "Rubye's Kids has become a holiday for my family," she said.
But the work will continue in other ways, she said.
And on Friday, the kind of joy Caesar lived to provide for kids was all around.
"Did you see my baby doll?" Kira Lloyd-Brazzle, 9, asked her friends. "She looks just like me. I was so excited to see Santa and get my present."
Kira and her friends, third graders, said they wouldn't forget this day.