The annual National Night Out observance represented a renaissance in more ways than one for Fox Chase this year.
Co-sponsored by the Fox Chase Town Watch, along with state Reps. Kevin and Brendan Boyle, the Aug. 6 community festival returned to the schoolyard at Fox Chase Elementary after a one-year hiatus. Meanwhile, Town Watch members and neighbors welcomed the re-emergence of longtime community advocate John Duffy seven months after a stroke threatened the beloved local figure’s life.
“John Duffy is an amazing person. … He’s got such strength. He looks great. It was such a pleasure to see him tonight,” said Philadelphia police Capt. Joe Zaffino of the 7th district as more than 500 adults and children strolled the schoolyard, sampling freebies from almost 50 vendors and schmoozing various public officials, including the Boyles, other state and local lawmakers, police and firefighters.
Duffy, the Town Watch vice president and former National Night Out committee chairman, reveled in the attention given him as the guest of honor. Now confined to a wheelchair, he greeted a procession of pals who brought him words of encouragement and thanks for his many years of service.
“It’s great getting [this event] back together,” Duffy said. “We used to use it as a tool to bring new members [into Town Watch] and it worked. We’re going to try it again.”
National Night Out was founded and is promoted across the United States and Canada by the National Association of Town Watch. But it’s up to individual communities to organize their own observances. Fox Chase began doing it in 1995, one year after a gang of suburban youths chased down and beat neighborhood teen Eddie Polec to death on the front steps of St. Cecilia’s church.
Duffy was there from the start and led the event’s growth into the largest of its kind in the Northeast, and one of the largest in the city. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of folks routinely attended as recently as a few years ago. But the economic downturn and declining volunteerism undermined the effort, eventually prompting the Fox Chase Town Watch to cancel its Night Out festivities in 2012.
“We weren’t getting the support and the school [district] was giving us a hard time” about using the schoolyard, Duffy explained.
On the heels of that setback, Duffy suffered a stroke at his home on Jan. 3. Thanks to extensive and ongoing rehabilitation, along with modifications to his house, he was able to return home for the first time on Aug. 2. He wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
“The community is great — a lot of friends, a lot of neighbors, a lot of good friends,” said Duffy, who said he plans to resume his volunteerism, despite his new physical limitations.
“He has served as a great example for the community and his dedication to the community is recognized by everyone,” Rep. Kevin Boyle said. “Everyone respects what he’s done.”
Public officials view Duffy’s work and that of other neighborhood advocates as vital to the viability of a community.
“[They] have such an influence on their neighborhoods. And Philadelphia has good neighborhoods because we have good activists who care about their neighborhoods and are willing to give hours in support of their neighborhoods,” Rep. Kevin Boyle said. “Every good, nice neighborhood you see in Northeast Philadelphia, I think you see a fairly significant number of community activists who work with their elected officials to get things done, to get events like this done.”
The quantity of involvement can vary, but the key is quality, according to Zaffino.
“I don’t think [Duffy] ever missed one of my meetings, whether it was my Town Hall meetings or the civic associations. He was there for everything,” the police captain said. “I remember that me, John and [Community Relations Officer] Richie Simon would sit at my Town Hall meeting and we would be the only three people there, but we would sit for an hour. But John never, ever failed to show up.
“He’s a testament to the fact that you don’t even have to be healthy. If you saw what he went through … and he’s still willing to come out here and help us out.” ••