For Philadelphia Police Officer Roslyn Downing, the 35th District's annual Christmas party is more than an assignment. It's personal.

Downing is the community relations officer (CRO) for the district that is headquartered in Olney and covers a portion of West Oak Lane.

As CRO, she is the liaison between the public and district staff. On Friday, however, she helmed the district's third-annual Christmas party, which was held nearby at Widener Memorial School.

One hundred students from Widener's upper school were brought in individually into a classroom temporarily outfitted as Santa's workshop, where they received their gifts.

While most police districts in the city make an effort to host a Christmas party for school-aged kids in their communities, the annual Widener party is unique in that police officers from the district and across the city "adopt" a specific child.

A donation is collected, and then gifts picked out by the students are purchased by Downing and other cops in anticipation of the event.

During the pre-party preparations, Downing wore a black Widener Wildcats sweatshirt, a memento from her daughter's time at the school, which serves special-needs children.

About the party planner

Downing, a seven-year veteran of the department, was formerly a patrol officer in the 35th District. Capt. John McCloskey, who once helmed the 35th, explained that he appointed Downing to the CRO position based on her work ethic and her ability to relate with the community.

"She probably works 14 hours a day," said McCloskey. "She's really got a good heart, which is something police officers need to be able to listen to people and help them out."

Preparations for the party began months ago. As related by Jeff Hackett, chair of the 35th District's Police Advisory Council, "Roz picked up the ball early. She prep-prepped."

Capt. Joseph Fredericksdorf, the current commanding officer of the 35th District, said that Downing is the "driving force" behind the party, and acknowledged that a seasonal role-reversal took place.

"She's the boss, and we just chip in, literally and figuratively," he said. "We were all wrapping gifts in the roll-call room, which isn't typical police work."

If available, the students were given their gift directly from the police officer who sponsored them. But it wasn't just the junior ranks pitching in: Cops from up and down the chain of command were on hand for the gift-giving.

Fredericksdorf, who handed out a few gifts himself, said that the party is a great opportunity for cops and kids to interact.

"They're truly appreciative," said Fredericksdorf, "which makes it fun for us."

A personal tie

Downing originally became involved in the school because of her daughter, who attended the school from the first to ninth grade. While they now live in Elkins Park and attend public high school outside of the city, Downing said that the students would always have "a place in her heart."

"I originally took on the project because a lot of the kids are sickly, and I wanted to give them their roses before they die," said Downing, referencing the higher mortality rates for the severely disabled students who comprise Widener's student body.

Most years, Downing related that a student succumbs to their disability; so far this year, "we've been good."

"They need to know that they are appreciated and that I love them," she said. "There's no way in the world you can go through what these kids go through and still have smiles on their faces the way that they do."

Ongoing connectivity

Participation isn't just a one-time effort.

Through the "Widener Heroes" program, officers from the 35th select a student to partner with year round. That culminates with a Widener Day festival in the spring, when local cops and those from units throughout the department come out to interact with the kids.

Sharon Glodek, principal of the Widener Memorial School, made a unique observation about the party's effect on the schools' 170 students.

"We never have anyone absent today," she observed. "They always come to school today."

Noting that the support is received from local police throughout the year, Glodek said that are two days that the "heroes" come to her school: Widener Day, and the Christmas party.

"By far, for the kids and me, they're the two best days of the year," she said.

The appreciation goes both ways.

"We consider them our heroes as well," said Downing.