WHEN OFFICER Roslyn "Roz" Talley first toured the Widener Memorial School for children who are medically fragile and physically disabled - a school her own daughter would one day attend - she took pity on the kids she saw in the hallways and classrooms.

"I'm not going to lie to you and tell you I didn't feel sorry for the children," Talley said. "It was sad to see so many kids in wheelchairs and walkers."

But it was a moment in the school's hallways that changed Talley's mind and helped her to see the students as kids and not just as special-needs children.

"There was a kid in a motorized wheelchair and then there was a kid behind that in a manual wheelchair holding on to [the motorized] wheelchair and then another kid behind him and they had a train," Talley said. "Well, I jumped out of the way and I couldn't stop laughing because there was a girl with a walker and she turned around and said, 'I've got to get me one of those!'

"Other people wanted the next Jordans, they wanted the next powered wheelchair," Talley said. "I thought that was so cool. They changed my mind."

Talley's mind - and her life - have also been changed by her 17-year-old daughter, Khmaia Downing, who suffers from cerebral palsy, epilepsy and autism.

It was out of Talley's experiences as Widener Memorial's Home and School Association president and out of her love for Khmaia that Widener Heroes - a unique Christmastime gift exchange between cops and disabled students - was born.

Talley, 42, saw that some students' parents weren't able to attend school functions and she saw too many kids pass away before they even made it to high school.

"I remember crying one day and thinking to myself, 'What can we do for these kids?' " she said. "We can't save their lives, but we can let them know they're loved while they are here."

For five years, with the help of their teachers, all 115 middle- and high-school students at Widener Memorial have written down a wish list of three items they'd like for Christmas.

"What was happening was sometimes the kids would get [donated] gifts that weren't physically appropriate, like a basketball when you don't have use of your hands," Talley said.

Once the students have their lists together, Talley pairs them with cops who volunteer to buy them one of their gifts. Widener Memorial principal Sharon Glodek said the officers can rarely keep it to just one, though.

"All the kids get what they asked for, but most of the time what happens is that the officers buy all three gifts for the kids," Glodek said.

A party is held - this year's is scheduled for tomorrow at the school - where the gifts are given to the kids and officers dress up like Santa and his elves.

But the connection between the cops and kids doesn't stop at the party. For the children at Widener Memorial, the officers really do become "extended family," Glodek said.

"More than the gift, it's knowing that someone cares about them," she said. "It's the relationship that's been established between the officers and my children. Different times throughout the year, they'll come in to visit. It's someone who is not only going to be a mentor, but a protector."

Cops will come and read to the kids, and at every Widener Memorial graduation, there are always cops in the audience now, Talley said.

"I was there one day when a kid had nobody at his graduation so we piled in and were there for him," she said. "So now every graduation there is cops. Just in case somebody is there without a family member."

For Talley, it's about the look of sheer joy on the kids' faces and that moment of realization for her fellow officers, just as she had back in the school's hallways so many years ago.

"What I'm extremely proud of is that the officers are educated and they gain empathy by encountering these kids," she said.

Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel was so impressed by Talley's work that this year he created a "project development specialist" position just for her.

Talley now works out of police headquarters searching for ways to connect the department and its officers with the community. This year she organized the department's red-and-white "sockie" sock campaign that raised $26,000 for the Ronald McDonald House, among other fundraisers and outreach programs.

"Roz is the lightning rod with her energy and excitement and you need that because so many officers are willing to step up and give back," Bethel said. "People attach themselves to people when they know they're doing things for the right reason. They want to be a part of that energy. It's humbling to see that unfold."

Talley was 34 when she joined the department and spent her first years at the 35th District, which covers Logan, Olney and the surrounding areas, where she worked as the community-relations officer.

For much of that time, she also served as Widener Memorial's Home and School Association president. Although she resigned her position with the association when her daughter changed schools to begin attending Abington High, she has never stopped volunteering at Widener Memorial, which she calls "one of the city's best-kept secrets."

"When she handed in her resignation, she said, 'I love the kids, I love the school and I will always be there for you,' " Glodek said. "And she kept her promise. She never missed a beat."

Aside from volunteering, working and taking care of her daughter, Talley is also going to Chestnut Hill College for her bachelor's degree in criminal justice.

When Khmaia, the youngest of Talley's three children, was born, Talley went through many phases, including denial and grief, before she came to accept her daughter's condition, she said.

"Finally, the Lord laid on my heart," she said. "He said, 'Listen this is my blessing to you because I know you can handle this."

Khmaia requires a walker to get around and, although she is verbal, she speaks only when she wants, her mother said. Like any other proud parent, Talley uses words like "awesome," and "beautiful" to describe her daughter.

But Talley has a different wish for her little girl's future than most parents.

"I'm hoping that someday if I leave this Earth, when it's my time, that someone will take good care of her and they would treat her right," Talley said. "I hope she will be treated as a human being and not as a science project."

Often, when Talley tells others about her daughter's disabilities, they say, " 'I'm so sorry to hear that your daughter is that way,' " she said. Talley tells them not to feel sorry for her or Khmaia.

"She's taught me that people like her, they need love. They need us to take care of them," Talley said. "No man's an island and it proves that no man is an island when you have people like her that exist because they need us.

"We need each other," she said.

 
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