I have recently been doing what my friends and I call “putting Christmas away.” It is good to declutter my house and my calendar.
And I have started reconnecting with people who I put on hold during the busyness of the season.
One of those people is Jane Halbert.
Jane and I serve together on the VERT (Volunteer Emergency Response Team) steering committee for the City of Woodbury. I knew Jane, a tireless volunteer, would have something going that would be of interest to Woodbury residents, so I invited her to coffee.
“Yes!” Jane said enthusiastically when I asked if she was working on a project she wanted to share. “Holiday Lights!”
Wait a minute… Holiday Lights in January? I just put Christmas away.
“Wow, Jane! That’s great. So now that the decorations are down and results are tallied, you can take a breather.”
“No,” she said enthusiastically, “tomorrow we have the first meeting for next year!”
King of Kings Lutheran Church was looking for a local community outreach project. They wanted to create a family tradition—something that would bring families together. They also wanted to respond to basic life needs for people in the Twin Cities.
Team member Lisa Engh is originally from Des Moines and thought they could do something similar to what that city offered its residents—a drive-through light display.
It fit the team’s criteria. It was family-friendly, both in terms of those it served and those who could volunteer. It was something the community could enjoy. It was a large undertaking and had the potential to raise significant funds for local organizations. And it required collaboration (a lot of collaboration!).
Through a series of serendipitous connections and hard work by the team (which includes Halbert, Engh, many King of King’s members, Vicki Sandberg, marketing director for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, volunteers from Padilla Speer Beardsley PR firm, and musician Phil Thompson), Holiday Lights in the Park began to take shape.
The City of St. Paul worked with the group to use Phalen Park (a drive-through park was a must). The IBEW agreed to provide technical assistance and volunteers. Padilla was willing to help with promotional direction. And King of Kings would handle logistical planning and recruit a core of volunteers.
The group contacted John Brandano, whose holiday lights displays grace public sites from Rockefeller Center to Chicago.
Lastly, they identified three areas of focus for funds: food, shelter, education and the environment. And they settled on Second Harvest Heartland, Union Gospel Mission, UnderConstruction and St. Paul Parks Conservancy as the recipients of their proceeds.
A Musical Partnership
The first year, several visitors said they wished there was music on the drive. A radio station maybe? The radio station was not feasible, so they brought in Phil Thompson, a talented Woodbury musician, to help.
Thompson’s involvement has grown to a collaboration with several groups and individuals on Minnesota’s Musical A-List. Thompson, GB Leighton, Tim Mahoney, The Blenders and others record single tracks for the CD, and get together for a Black Friday concert at the Mall of America (MOA), and a gala performance at Minneapolis’s Historic Pantages Theater in early December.
More than 10,000 CDs have been distributed, the MOA concert helps promote the main event and Pantages concert ticket sales bring in additional money for the not-for-profits.
In its four-year run, IBEW Holiday Lights in the Park has raised $170,000.
But it has provided far more than money. It is a family tradition, both for those who drive through and for dozens of families who volunteer. And it engages 350-400 volunteers each year.
Jane explained: "Some come for community service hours or as part of a scout group, for instance, but they return 'because they love it.'”
It has also become a place for love—first dates, couples' date nights, and more than one marriage proposal.
Lastly, it brings hope and peace to a neighborhood that has seen an uptick in crime. For at least a few weeks every year, Phalen Park has no night police calls.
At the top of this article, I referred to Jane as a tireless volunteer. I literally mean tireless. Jane, who gets by on less than five hours of sleep a night, puts in about 300-400 hours of volunteer service a year.
When she isn’t working on Holiday Lights, she runs Halbert Design, her own graphic design company (she often provides free design services to not-for-profits). She also raises two teens, serves on the board of directors for Kurt Johnson Auctioneering, Inc., volunteers in the community and schools, and is involved with several committees at King of Kings Lutheran Church.
“Volunteering fuels my creative side,” she said. “It feeds my soul.”
Her children have been raised to be generous with their time, too. They are among the volunteers who greet guest cars at the Holiday Lights entrance.
“It is cool to see my kids learn life lessons by observing. They see the limos, the well-dressed. And they see people come through in old cars. They learn that not everyone is as blessed as we are, and that they should not judge people by the way they look."
And, they also learn that volunteering is fun. "It’s the fun that makes it so contagious. I don’t need to ask my kids twice to help out!”
“So,” I asked, “do you ever just lie down?”
“Last Friday I did,” she said with a smile. Yes, but not exactly in the way I was thinking. Jane, a 13-gallon platelet donor over 10 years, made a triple donation of platelets.
As happens so often with volunteers, Jane experienced a need and now responds to others who have that same need. She was a blood recipient, receiving a transfusion during a surgery following an accident.
“I learned firsthand how valuable that gift is. And a blood donation costs nothing but time,” she explained. “Imagine. Me and three others kept a guy alive for nine months with white blood cell donations.”
What a valuable gift indeed!
I think it is safe to say that Jane is a light in our community year round.