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It’s pizza party time again in the Quad Cities. Happy Joe’s Pizza and Ice Cream, along with the Happy Joe’s Kids Foundation, is back to hosting its annual holiday parties for special needs children. About 1,500 children, young people, their parents and helpers are expected to attend four holiday party sessions at the Vibrant Arena at The Mark in downtown Moline. Two of those parties were held Tuesday, Dec. 6, and two more were scheduled for this morning, Wednesday, Dec. 7. (Holiday parties also were held or are being planned at many of the 40-plus stores in the Happy Joe’s franchise.) Several hundred young people attended the first party at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, and were treated to plenty of pizza (at least 70 pies were served), soft drinks and ice cream. The meal was followed by a visit from Santa Claus and entertainment including performances from Happy the Dog and the Happy Joe’s hip-hop dance team. Kristel Whitty-Ersan, vice president of marketing for Happy Joe’s, said this year’s parties are a happy return of a tradition developed by her father, Quad Cities entrepreneur Lawrence “Happy Joe” Whitty, the first year he started the company in 1972. Mr. Whitty, who died in 2019, launched the parties as part of his commitment to ensure all families with special needs children felt welcomed at Happy Joe’s, she added. But his signature parties were canceled in the past two years because of the pandemic. “For some people, this is their Christmas party. … During COVID, I had so many calls from people asking ‘Are you going to have a party this year?’ We just couldn’t until now,” Ms. Whitty-Ersan said. A few minutes before Tuesday’s first party, she was busy helping with all the big and small jobs that needed to get done for the party. One was to give instructions to some of the 100 volunteers working the party. “We want you to dance with the kids. … We are here for them. We want you to spread out all over the room,” she told some of the younger volunteers. Some longtime volunteers said the parties are the highlight of the year. “These are the two most special days of the year,” said Hollie Matthys, of Eldridge, a 20-year Happy Joe’s employee and volunteer. “It’s just great to see the look of joy on their faces.” Another longtime Happy Joe’s employee and party volunteer Andy Wildermuth, said he was volunteering to help keep Mr. Whitty’s holiday party tradition alive and bring some joy to many children in the community. “It’s all about seeing that joy,” he added. “It was incredible. I know the kids loved it,” said Kailynn Buchman, a teacher from the North Scott School District, who was at the party with several special needs children. She added that the children especially liked the pizza and the visit from Santa. After visiting with Santa, children received gifts as they left the party. Gifts of books also were spread out over several tables including “Where The Wild Things Are,” “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” and “Dog Man Unleashed.” Thomas Sacco, Happy Joe’s CEO and president, said the holiday parties are more evidence of his view of the business: “We’ve been in the happy kids business for 50 years, and the pizza is just a byproduct.” “The holiday season is the most important time of year to give back, and nobody deserves to have a more festive time than children with special needs,” Mr. Sacco said. “Happy Joe’s strives to be the top choice for great food and a fun time together. These parties have been designed to ensure these wonderful children feel appreciated and included in our community. We’ve been told that for many of these kids this is the highlight of their holidays, and their teachers and parents are thrilled these parties are making a comeback.”