Tribune-Courier News Reporter
In the last 13 years, the Mike Miller Park Christmas light display has provided the Marshall County Caring Needline $452,429 and 284,679 canned goods. The donations made by visitors to the display are used to feed countless families during the holiday season and help offset the costs of helping those families for the rest of the year.
Needline Director Becky Cornwell is responsible for organizing individuals who will work the collection booths at Mike Miller Park, but said park employees who make the attraction possible do the real work.
She said the work they do bring the people in and allow the Needline to do its work.
“The lights help us tremendously,” she said. “It helps us operate year round. The support is greatly appreciated and allows us to go out and help those who need it in our community.”
The Needline serves more than 400 homes per month, which Cornwell said wouldn’t be possible without the lights at the park and the help of those who work on the attraction.
Marshall County Parks Director Larry Whitt said while the lights at the park had evolved tremendously during the past 13 years, the mission remained the same – to provide the community a way to enjoy the season together and to support the Needline.
When the first light show started in 2000, Whitt said two men, Paul Cathy and Gary Travis, donated their own time and lights from their homes to display at the park.
“Each year they continued to build on to it and then the park began receiving donations,” he said. “Now we’re up to almost four million Christmas lights.”
Whitt said the first light show in 2000 raised $3,694 and 18,027 canned goods for the Needline, with more than 2,000 vehicles visiting the light show.
He said the lights have continuously brought more people each year.
“In 2012 $50,253 and 30,426 were donated and 24,626 vehicles went through the park for the light show,” he said. “We were expecting low turnout last year because of the economy, but it was our most successful year so far. The Needline wouldn’t be able to operate without this fundraiser so it’s important we improve it every year to bring more people.”
This year, park employees have added two more attractions to the show – a Ninja Turtles component added to the cartoon characters site and a charity component, which displays Gunner’s Magic Train, the American Red Cross and a breast cancer awareness ribbon.
The amount of work put in to creating and maintaining the yearly light show is no small feat, according to Whitt, as four people work eight hours per day five days a week starting in September and ending when the lights are turned on officially the day after Thanksgiving.
“Seeing those kids’ faces and knowing that all this is going to help countless people makes it all worth it,” Whitt said. “Some people would have a hard time surviving without the Needline so we want to do our best to raise funds for them.”
Tracy King, employee of the park and one of the people who spearheads work on the light show, said the work that goes into putting on the light show is mostly behind the scenes.
“In between Thanksgiving and the last day of the year when we turn off the lights, we’re constantly doing maintenance on the lights and building new lights for next year,” he said. “Every year we rewire about 25 percent of the lights that way all of them are redone every four years.”
King said he started doing the work on the lights because it was so enjoyable.
“It’s fun for me – the guys who help have got a passion for it and that’s awesome and it helps the community too,” he said.
Even though the show is most visited by members of the community, Whitt said the attraction has brought in people from every state in the country.
“People driving down the Purchase Parkway headed somewhere else see the lights - and often stop by to see the lights,” he said. “It’s great because it means we get more donations for the community.”