Rotary Lights seeing record donations, crowds

One week remaining to visit holiday lights display

Rotary Lights President Pat Stephens said there have been three weddings and about 20 marriage proposals under the holiday lights display this year, but those are pretty typical numbers.

With one week before the lights are turned off, the donations are believed to have already reached an all-time high.

To walk or drive through the Rotary Lights display is free, but visitors are asked to bring a donation to a local food pantry.

Each night, after the park goes dark, a local food pantry receives all the donations from that day. And Shelly Fortner, executive director of the Hunger Task Force of La Crosse, said those donations are very valuable to the tens of thousands in need this time of year.

Not many times in its 21-year history have the twinkling lights in Riverside Park been reflecting off the grass instead of the snow. But the warm weather keeping away the snow, seems to be bringing more people to the Rotary Lights.

“We can always tell our donations get better when people can walk the park in addition to just driving around it, and we’ve had some great weekends and weeks here with warm weather and a lot of families have come down and walked the park, thousands as a matter of fact,” Stephens said.

Stephens also believes low gas prices are helping drive record crowds to the park, and those records crowds are bringing with them a record amount of donations for the food pantries.

“I think it’s going to be the best year we’ve ever had,” Stephens said.

The Hunger Task Force is one of the organizations receiving the food donations. The organization supports most of the meal sites and food pantries in the area. Fortner said the donations made at Rotary Lights play a vital role in making sure no one goes hungry during the holidays.

“The winter time is when people are primarily in need. They’re making choices that, you and I wouldn’t want to make. One of those is whether or not they should have food for their families or pay some of their heating bills, and luckily we’ve been fairly lucky so far this year, but those struggles are real,” she said.

Fortner said locally there are 10,000-20,000 people in need of a free meal and being served at food pantries each month. But she said thankfully, during the winter months, the community and Rotary Lights are making a large contribution to helping those people out.

“When Rotary Lights is collecting food it just means the world to all of those programs so that they have enough to feed their hungry people that are coming in,” Fortner said.

Stephens said about 180,000 people come through Rotary Lights each year.

There are 114 sponsors and more than 3,000 volunteers that help keep the event free of charge.

The Rotary Lights display is open from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., except for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day when the park is only open until 9 p.m. On New Year’s Eve, the lights will be on until 1 a.m.

There will be horse-and-carriage rides available on Christmas night.