Naquan Burns emerged from Santa's toyland with wide eyes and a shiny red fire truck.
Christmas had come early, and the 5-year-old bubbled over with joy.
"I got just what I wanted!" said Naquan, a kindergartner at Wright Elementary School. "Santa was really nice!"
That's just what Santa - and more than 100 volunteers - had in mind for Naquan and the 400 other children from city schools and homeless shelters who gathered for Rubye's Kids Holiday Party at Girard College yesterday. For 15 years, the nonprofit Rubye's Kids has been providing needy children with books, warm hats, cotton candy, pizza, art projects, games and yes, toys.
Wendy Goldberg, counselor at Wright, a K-6 school in Strawberry Mansion, tears up when she thinks about what the party means for her students.
"Every single one of them has a story - some have parents who are incarcerated, some live with grandparents, many of them have been affected by gun violence," said Goldberg. "Here, there's no stress. They're spoiled, just like children should be."
The party costs about $30,000 to put on each year, but amazingly, the recession has hardly touched it. Donations are off slightly, but volunteers are plentiful, and children still go home with bags so laden with goodies some can hardly carry them.
"It's an act of faith. Somehow, it just comes together," said Roz Weiss, who heads the nonprofit.
Hugging people, consulting lists, making announcements, Weiss was perhaps the busiest person in sight.
She was the unlikely center of a roomful of needy North Philadelphia children: Weiss lives in Elkins Park with her chiropractor husband, works full-time as a life coach and meditation teacher, and battles multiple sclerosis, which paralyzed her for a time.
"I'm Jewish; I don't even celebrate Christmas," said Weiss, 61. "But this really is what the season is all about, regardless of what your religion is."
The party is named for Rubye Caesar, who for years invited neighborhood children into her North Philadelphia home for hot chocolate and a small gift.
In 1994, Caesar's daughter died of heart disease, leaving her two small children in Caesar's care. Already stretched on a fixed income, Caesar knew she couldn't afford to host her little holiday party without help.
Enter Weiss, who was looking for an opportunity to help children during the holidays. Weiss called Caesar, a patient of her husband's, for suggestions, and Caesar burst into tears of joy. They invited 80 children to the first party they hosted together.
Caesar died suddenly the next year, leaving Weiss to carry on - and expand. The huge holiday bash is a responsibility that Weiss feels honor-bound to continue.
"It's great living in suburbia and having everything you need, but when you're living in North Philly and you barely have what you need and you still give back, that's real inspiration," Weiss said. "It feels like Rubye threw the ball to me, and I'll keep bouncing it until I have to throw it to someone else."
That delights Anita Duke, principal of Wright, one of the schools that has been participating since the early days of Rubye's Kids. Duke arrived in the schoolyard early yesterday to welcome 28 excited kindergarten, first- and second-grade students she had selected based on need.
"This is the first year I had parents coming up to me and asking if their children could come to Rubye's Kids," Duke said. "Times are tough."
For days, the Wright children had been asking when they could go to the party. Sitting on a school bus, waiting to go inside Girard College, they slipped on their light blue Rubye's Kids T-shirts and talked about Christmas.
"Santa doesn't have any money," Zahira Tucker, a second grader, told her seatmate, her blue-and-white barrettes bobbing up and down as she made her point. "The elves don't have any money, either. They just make stuff."
When it was the Wright students' turn to join others inside, more than 100 volunteers stood on either side of a red carpet leading into the gym. They clapped, hollered and whistled for the beaming children. Then there was a juggler, music and dancing, then, lunch - all the pizza, pretzels and juice the students wanted.
The main room smelled like popcorn and cupcakes. Balloons and tinsel were everywhere, and children careened from station to station, making ornaments, playing games, tracing their hands on a giant mural.
But some savored every moment. When it was his turn to go inside Santa's toyland, Samuel Johnson, 7, spent 10 minutes examining tables and tables of options - games and remote-controlled cars, basketballs and trains.
"That's it," Samuel said solemnly, when he spied just the Transformer he'd been hoping for. He even allowed himself a small smile when he spied Kris Kringle, peeking around a taller girl in line in front of him.
"Santa! It's me!" Samuel called.
The party was especially poignant for Debbie Tucker, Wright school secretary. Tucker's niece, Zahira, and her nephews, Zahir and Zion, lost their father to gun violence this year. The children's father, a huge presence in their lives, loved Christmas.
"They've never been without a father," Tucker said. "This helps a lot. It takes their minds off it."
She was right: Playing with a new pink scarf draped around her neck, Zahira Tucker was jubilant. Zahira, 8, got a toy video camera in Santa's workshop, and she had plenty of other loot tucked into her bag, too. Rubye's Kids made her want to help someone else, she said.
"I've got so much stuff," Zahira said, touching a fluffy white teddy bear. "I'm thinking of my mom. I'm going to give her this."
Rubye's Kids, a Jenkintown-based nonprofit, operates year-round, throwing birthday parties and providing study centers for children in homeless shelters, stuffing backpacks, and planning the annual holiday party. To learn more or to donate, go to www.rubyeskids.org, call 215-887-7100, or write Rubye's Kids, c/o Weiss Holistic Health Center, 453 Johnson St., Suite 101, Jenkintown, Pa. 19046.EndText