Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2012, 5:45 pm

Happy Joe hosts special party for special kids

Comment on this story

By Sarah Hayden,

More photos from this shoot
Photo: Todd Mizener
Happy Joe Whitty gets a big hug from Jeffery, 9, a student at Blackhawk Area Education Center, as he and his classmate Evie, 10, arrive for Happy Joe's 40th Annual Special Needs Party at the i wireless Center in Moline on Wednesday Nov. 14, 2012. The annual pizza party hosted over a thousand kids filling the arena floor with even more tables spilling out into the foyer.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: Todd Mizener
Christmas was in the air as hundreds ofspecial-needs children celebrated at Happy Joe's 40th annual holiday party Wednesday at the i wireless Center in Moline.

Wearing his trademark straw-brimmed hat, Joe Whitty sat near the stage greeting children, giving out hug after hug. He said last year he only heard one complaint from a child and it was, "can we make the party last longer next year?"

Decked out in Santa headbands and holiday aprons, an army of volunteers from The Optimist Club, Shriners and Pepsi Co. served pizza, Pepsi and cookies to nearly 1,000 kids and teachers as characters dressed as Snow White, Woody, Red Riding Hood and Glinda the Good Witch visited with the children.

Phil Denton, a Pepsi employee and volunteer with The Optimist Club, has been involved with the event since the first Christmas party in 1972.

"We volunteer any way we can, it's amazing the number of volunteers," he said. "It's a great activity for people who want to help their community."

Mr. Whitty's outreach to special-needs children was inspired by one such child when he was a manager at Shakey's. A mother asked if she could bring her mentally handicapped son into the restaurant, saying that he wasn't always welcome in other places.

Mr. Whitty was struck by her story and set up a special table for them, bought them a pizza and allowed the young boy to play the restaurant's piano.

The event left an impression on Mr. Whitty, and, after that, he vowed to help special-needs children any way he could.

It began with a prayer. Days after opening the first Happy Joe's in the Village of East Davenport, Mr. Whitty vowed that if the restaurant could stay open and be successful enough to provide for his family, he would give back to children with special needs.

"I made a deal with the 'Big Guy' upstairs, and I wasn't about to back out of that deal," Mr. Whitty said. "My mother always said, don't take something without giving something back."

Thus began Happy Joe's annual special-needs Christmas party, which has grown from several small events into one, large event this year, taking over the main floor of the i wireless Center and spilling into the lobby with extra tables.

"The i wireless Center bent over backwards to help make this happen," said Kristel Whitty-Ersan, Mr. Whitty's youngest daughter, advertising and marketing director for Happy Joe's.

"We've served more than 200,000 kids in the past 40 years, and other Happy Joe's restaurants hold events in their own communities," Ms. Whitty-Ersan said.

Special-education teacher Shelley Spicer brought her students from Moline's Roosevelt Elementary School.

"They look forward to this every year, they've been counting down the days on a calendar," she said. "It's rewarding to see all the different special needs kids and getting to see Mr. Whitty."

Roosevelt student Sidney Mudd, 9, said, "I get to play and dance."

As Santa Claus made his entrance in a red convertible, the room broke into applause and kids waited their turn to shake his hand.

A dance team wearing the original Happy Joe's uniforms performed several routines with Happy Joe's mascot, Happy the dalmation.

"The best part is the dancing," Ms. Whitty-Ersan said. "These kids get out and dance, even in their wheelchairs."