CHESHIRE — Once again Cheshire was illuminated by electricity and generosity Saturday.
For the fourteenth year, volunteers fanned out in the afternoon, placing luminaries — tiny 15-hour burning candles — all around town. Each luminary signifies a donation to Cheshire’s Lights of Hope, which in turn supports local community organizations that need the help.
This was a year of growth for the non-profit. Due to increased community participation, Cheshire’s Lights of Hope was able to increase its donation to the three primary recipients of the group’s philanthropy — Cheshire Community Food Pantry ($14,000), Cheshire Youth and Social Services ($14,000), and the Petit Family Foundation ($8,500). The money raised also go towards two $2,000 scholarships for volunteer-oriented high school seniors.
“We like to see how we are specifically helping someone in our community,” said founder Don Walsh, president of Cheshire’s Lights of Hope.
People are quick to point out that there are needs in town that aren’t immediately apparent that Cheshire’s Lights of Hope can help with.
“Even in a town that’s relatively affluent, there is a group of people who can’t heat their homes,” said volunteer David Mercugliano.
+Lights of Hope is there to help with that kind of problem or, for example, to help the senior citizen who is having trouble staying in their homes because of increased expense. The needs are there and the group is poised to assist.
“There are a lot of different things going on in this community that people don’t know. We just want to make sure that we help as many people as we can,” Walsh said.
Walsh said planning the event is a huge undertaking.
“You don’t realize how big a town is until you have to light the whole thing,” he said.
Volunteer Jennifer Denne organized a group of 222 street captains — one for each street in the town participating in the event.
By the time they are done, 50,000 luminaries will be in place.
“We try to light up the whole town,” Denne said. “I think this brings the whole community together. It’s a great community to be a part of.”
In 2005 Walsh and his wife Jenifer were looking for something to bring their neighborhood together. They came up with the idea of luminaries all over their Contour Drive neighborhood and used the idea to raise money for Relay for Life in memory of a neighbor who died from cancer. In 2006 a neighboring street embraced the idea.
In 2007 the murders of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters Hayley and Michaela broke the hearts of the community.
Cheshire’s Lights of Hope helped in a small way heal Cheshire’s wounds that year and has only grown since. Since then over $900,000 has been raised for local charities.
“Folks were really taken by it,” Mercugliano said.
The important part of the day didn’t take place at night when everything was lit and Cheshire twinkled. It was the moment when high school kids went out all over town giving of their time. It was when people took a moment and a few dollars to say I am with my town, I care about my neighbors.
The first year the event expanded town wide, Don and Jenifer Walsh went for a ride.
“We were finally able to get out around town at 10:30. We got to the end of the street and my wife was asleep. There were cars driving slowly around town looking at the beauty of it,” he said.
Walsh turned incredulous. “We did this,” he said. “Can you imagine that? We did this. This town is a special community. They come out for a lot of things.”