Fifth annual fund-raising dinner a game-changer for K-9 program
By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times
Long before the tickets had even been printed for Chester County Sheriff Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh’s Fifth Annual Wild Game Dinner, they weren’t available.
Deputy Sheriff Harry McKinney, lead organizer of the popular fund-raising event, told Saturday night’s crowd of more than 300 at the Westside Entertainment Center in West Chester that he started getting inquiries in late summer. The 2014 event represented the third straight sellout – with no end to that trend in sight.
“If they had season tickets for this, I’d buy them,” said Guy Donatelli, a West Chester lawyer, echoing a majority sentiment. He and others pointed out that the camaraderie is rivaled only by the food – and the opportunity to support a cause that benefits the community.
Welsh said proceeds from this year’s dinner will fund training programs for her office’s K-9 unit, which currently has three dogs that can detect explosives, one that sniffs out drugs, one trained to find accelerants, and one trained to locate cadavers. The dogs are used during emergencies throughout the county and beyond, she said.
For many, the dinner represents a fun family outing. Vincent Talucci Jr. and Sr. of Downingtown always reserve a table for relatives and friends. And typical of the gathering of avid sports enthusiasts, many of the attendees use their hunting outings to contribute to the dinner’s ingredients. For example, Talucci Jr. joined McKinney in the group of wild duck donors.
Alligator meat was shipped in from Louisiana by one of Welsh’s colleagues: Sheriff Craig Weber of Lafourche Parish. But most of the wild game came from Chester Countians. Foresta’s Country Meat Mart in Phoenixville provided the deer, McKinney supplied pheasants, and Unionville’s Bill Rubin donated buffalo and llama.
Obtaining the food constituted one hurdle; the next was deciding how to prepare it, Welsh said. She explained that McKinney scoured countless recipes before finalizing this year’s menu, a process that invariably involves reconfiguring the instructions to accommodate more than 300. In the kitchen, with few exceptions, Welsh’s staff took over.
Dozens of deputies expertly prepared appetizers that included spicy deer sausage, duck bologna and fried alligator nuggets, old-fashioned pheasant soup, and entrees such as buffalo and llama meatloaf, venison stew, and alligator-stuffed peppers. One of the deputies, Chris Rongaus, was permitted to bring professional reinforcements: his brother, Andrew, assistant general counsel for the Pennsylvania State Police; and their father, Kenneth, longtime proprietor of Tony’s Meat Market & Deli in West Chester, where all of them honed their culinary skills at various times.
Chief Deputy Sheriff George P. March, who joined the office in the fall, said the assemblage of talent impressed him. “I’m just amazed at how well everyone works together,” he said. “It’s pretty neat to see.” Welsh added that more than half of her staff had a role in the production.
She said she would be thrilled to be able to accommodate more patrons; however, finding a venue that offers more seating as well as kitchen facilities that her deputies can commandeer is a challenge. “There wasn’t an extra ticket to be had,” she said. “I wish we didn’t have to turn anyone away.”
In addition to profits from the dinner, which costs $45 apiece, Welsh said her department also benefits from a host of donated silent auction and raffle items, ranging from an irresistible black Labrador puppy to about a dozen hunting rifles and shotguns. She said she expected the 2014 dinner, which returned to its normal place under the radar, to net about $9,000.
In 2013, the event generated a flood of publicity when word got out that an ArmaLite AR-15 semi-automatic rifle was among the weapons to be raffled. A cadre of protestors deemed the inclusion of that firearm appalling in the wake of the school massacre in Connecticut, which subsequently led to a virtual stakeout of the event by print and TV reporters.
Welsh acknowledged that the timing was unfortunate; however, she pointed out that the raffle items were donated long before the school shooting and that she doesn’t select them. More importantly, she said, every raffle winner undergoes a rigorous background check.
Last year’s winner of the AR-15 turned out to be a respected, local businessman who also happens to be a gun collector, Welsh said. She added that he was disappointed that he was out of town and couldn’t attend this year’s festivities. In what turned out to be an unsuccessful bid to repeat his success, he purchased some raffle tickets in advance, she said.
Ultimately, everyone seemed to go home a winner. “It doesn’t matter if I have the right ticket, I know I’m supporting a good cause,” one repeat attender suggested.
Veronica Hoadley of West Chester agreed, pointing out that the food and conversation combined to create a winning atmosphere. “It’s a great time,” she said. “You get to meet so many wonderful people.”
Assessing the 2014 event, Welsh said on Sunday that it was gratifying to see so many people enjoy themselves and to be able to raise funds that supplement the county budget. “People really look forward to coming,” Welsh said. “Harry’s already getting calls to reserve tables for next year.”