For the Chester County Sheriff’s Office, “game on” conveys a message that extends beyond the phrase’s familiar use: It marks the annual culmination of a crowd-pleasing fundraiser that transforms the likes of llama, moose, and deer into haute cuisine.
On Saturday, March 4, more than 300 gathered at the former Westside Entertainment Center in West Chester, now owned by Providence Church, for the sold-out event. Sheriff Lt. Harry McKinney, the lead organizer, said that he made calls in the fall to the 36 people who each reserved one or two tables in 2016 to see if they wanted to return for the Eighth Annual Wild Game Dinner.
Only three tables ended up being available, McKinney said, and those spots went fast, marking the sixth straight sellout. Attendees said the convivial atmosphere, creative food, and inventive raffles, coupled with the knowledge that the proceeds benefit a worthy cause, make reservations so coveted.
The event supports the K-9 Unit of the Sheriff’s Office. McKinney said the $16,500 netted from the 2016 event paid for the acquisition and training of another narcotics dog. “The bills haven’t been paid yet, but I expect this year to surpass last year,” McKinney said.
The K-9 Unit, which now has 10 dogs, responds to several calls each week, according to Chester County Sheriff Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh. The most frequent involve searches by teams trained to detect narcotics or explosives. However, Melody, the office’s comfort dog, is equally in demand for defusing stress, particularly in cases involving children.
Addressing the audience, Welsh expressed thanks to the dozens of volunteers, most from the Sheriff’s Office, who make the event happen. Later, she labeled McKinney “the ringmaster,” whose team included Cpl. Brad DeSando, who oversaw the set-up, Sgt. Janis Pickell, who supervised the kitchen, and Lee DiMattia, who coordinated the volunteers.
“The event gets better each year,” said Welsh. “It’s like a big family dinner. Everyone is very friendly; many are from the hunting and sporting community.”
Welsh said the event has come a long way from a challenging start. The office revved into high gear for the first dinner, a buffet held at the Knights of Columbus that attracted only 68 people, generating “way too many leftovers.” The situation reversed the next year when the office ran out of food. Welsh said 150 advance reservations were made, and she went on the radio the day before to promote it.
“We filled the room, but we didn’t have enough of everything,” Welsh said. “People loaded up their plates, decided they didn’t like something, and sadly it was wasted.”
That experience led to the family-style approach to serving that has been utilized ever since, enabling diners to sample everything and take more of what they like.
The dinner constitutes a fun, family outing for reservation-holders as well as volunteers. Several tables boasted multiple generations, and even the kitchen had a key collaboration of kin: Deputy Sheriff Cpl. Chris Rongaus and his father, Kenny Rongaus, the proprietor of Tony’s Meat Market & Deli, a beloved West Chester institution that closed in 2011.
The pair was among dozen of deputies who spent the better part of two days preparing dishes such as venison braciole, pheasant pot pie, fried alligator nuggets, and shiitake mushrooms stuffed with bear sausage.
Doug Castaldi, a state constable from Downingtown, applauded the menu. “The venison was especially wonderful,” he said. “Nothing was overcooked, which is hard to do.”
Norm MacQueen, Chester County’s controller, agreed. “Whoever was cooking definitely knew what they were doing,” he said. “Everything was delicious.”
Welsh said the cooks, who were blessed with an impressive bounty of ingredients, spent many hours scouring recipes to come up with a menu that differed from the previous year’s. Sheriffs from around the country donated items ranging from bear to alligator while many local residents contributed the fruits of their hunting expeditions. Desserts came from Cakes & Candies by Maryellen, a West Chester business run by Maryellen Bowers.
In addition to the food, the event featured a variety of games of chance, silent auctions, and opportunities to win prizes running the gamut from hunting accoutrements to baskets of dog treats. This year marked the debut of K-9 wine, an ongoing initiative through a partnership with Weston Wineries in Wyoming.
David B. Terry, the company’s East Coast retail coordinator, attended the event with samples of both red and white wines that feature the Chester County Sheriff’s top dogs on the labels. The company will donate 10 percent of sales to the K-9 program. McKinney said he expects friendly competition to develop as each K-9 team vies to sell the most bottles. To purchase the wine, visit https://www.kninewines.com.
Debbie Abel, who runs Abel Brothers Towing and Automotive, Inc., with her husband, John, said they started reserving a table six years ago and quickly realized that they needed two to accommodate all the people they wanted to bring.
“It’s just a great atmosphere,” Abel said. “I love the fact that it attracts salt-of-the-earth people and isn’t political at all. Raising money for such a great cause is something everyone can get behind.”
Abel said the event represents a tremendous amount of work and is always done well. “We’re happy to support the Sheriff’s Office,” she added. “They’re just great people who do a fabulous job.”
John Hoadly and his wife, Veronica, have also reserved a table for the past six years, and during four of those years, John Hoadly managed to walk away with the event’s featured puppy. In fact, one of those dogs, Peggy Sue, who’s now 5, turned into a birding champion, he said.
This year, Hoadly, like many others, formed an immediate bond with Mickey, a mellow, black Labrador pup that spent the evening charming the crowd. Hoadly said his wife had insisted that they did not need another dog, but he disagreed. “It’s my birthday so I get to do whatever I want,” he explained. “Otherwise, I’d be in the doghouse.”
Ultimately, Hoadly’s wife got her wish. Fierce competition resulted in the grand prize’s going to Cpl. Chris Rongaus. Mickey had spent the preceding week in the Sheriff’s Office, where Rongaus was smitten. “I was a nervous wreck all day,” he said. “I really didn’t want to go home without that dog.”
Kristen Youndt, the sister-in-law of Deputy Sheriff Mike Sarro, one of the K-9 handlers, attended for the first time. She and Sarro feigned shock that his wife, Kelly, enjoyed Italian wedding soup with bison and llama after repeatedly reading “Llama, Llama Red Pajama,” a popular children’s book.
Kelly Sarro took the teasing in stride. “It’s been a lot of fun,” she said. And part of the entertainment stemmed from a discovery by Youndt. “I took second place in the shooting contest,” Youndt said, shaking her head. “I had no idea.”
Jose Mestre, a security officer for the Sheriff’s Office, said he looks forward to volunteering each year. “It makes me proud to see how well we work together as a team,” he said. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s so worth it.”
For several years, Welsh has said she would like to accommodate more diners; however, finding a venue that offers more seating as well as kitchen facilities that her deputies can commandeer poses a challenge. But expansion may occur next year at the same location.
McKinney said the office is considering the possibility of using another floor. He said the games and auctions could be handled there, leaving room for six to eight more tables on the main floor.
“I’ll know within 30 days,” said McKinney, who is already beginning to work on next year’s event. “I can’t say enough about how much we appreciate the support of the community, our sponsors, and the deputies and volunteers.”
He also has advice for anyone new who wants to be included in next year’s festivities: “They should call me and get on the waiting list.”