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ST. MARYS — Cloudy skies and the threat of rain showers did little to quell the crowd that turned out to greet Santa Claus as part of his annual visit to St. Marys.
Amid an escort of police cars and fire trucks, Santa Claus made his way down Spring Street and into his house near the shelterhouse along the Miami and Erie Canal as Winterfest and the Festival of Lights kicked off on Sunday. Even before Santa made his way to his home, dozens of eager children lined up to tell him what they wanted for Christmas this year.
The events’ organizers — the St. Marys Optimist Club and the St. Marys Community Partnership — teamed up this year and moved to a central location. The St. Marys Optimist Club, which has sponsored Winterfest for years, provided free hot dogs, cookies and hot chocolate to visitors. The group accepted donations to help fund its various activities throughout the year.
“We’re getting a pretty good crowd,” Optimist Club member Larry Kill told The Evening Leader as he cooked some hot dogs. “Santa is arriving and it’s exciting.”
In addition to Winterfest, the Optimist Club is involved in sponsoring other events throughout the year. Member Daniel Macklem said the club holds an annual bike safety day for local children.
“We hold oratorical contests and sponsor all kinds of youth events in the city,” Macklem said. “All the money we raise goes back into the community.”
Kill said Winterfest is a way to bring the community together before the holiday season picks up.
“I think just about every one of the Optimist members we have is here and doing something today,” Kill said. “This is an event that everyone shows up for. Everyone loves Christmas and it’s a fun thing for the kids ... If you look around, there are about 300 people out here right now and it’s probably one of the best crowds we’ve had. It just brings the families together and I think it’s a good thing we do for the community.”
In year’s past, Winterfest has been held in Memorial Park, and the St. Marys Community Partnership held its Festival of Lights at K.C. Geiger Park last year. This year, the two groups decided to team up and brought the events to a central location.
“It’s a little more accessible,” Kill said. “I think it’s working really well ... If it keeps expanding, we might expand back into the park. It would be nice to have all these decorations span back into the park along the walkway.”
Once visiting with Santa, those in attendance had the chance to ice skate on a portable rink and watch a living Nativity put on by Living Hope Assembly of God.
At approximately 6 p.m., the St. Marys Community Partnership’s Festival of Lights got underway. Approximately two dozen local businesses and organizations set up displays. Visitors to the event were asked to bring canned goods that would then be donated to Agape.
“The crowd is amazing,” St. Marys Community Partnership President Jeremy Holtzapple said. “It’s nice to see a lot of people out here today.”
Holtzapple praised the partnership between the two groups for putting on Sunday’s event for the community.
“They are a great group to work with and always have put on a great event with Winterfest,” Holtzapple said. “There’s a lot of benefits to being down here than at K.C. Geiger Park. I think just putting everything together and having one big event community event has a lot of benefits to it.”
Expansion plans are in the works for the festival as well.
“Long-term is just to keep expanding every year,” Holtzapple said. “Last year, it did bring a lot of people into town and we hope to continue that ... Eventually maybe we’ll be able to expand it into Memorial Park and have one big downtown event.”
The event also offered a chance for local Girl Scouts to earn their Silver Award for service work. The girls assisted in the Optimist Club’s food stand by passing out hot dogs, hot chocolate and cookies to hungry visitors.
“We have to do some service work to get it — it’s a big award,” said Mabeline Goodwin. “I like this event a lot. It’s great.”
Goodwin, 12, has attended Winterfest in the past and was quick to mention her favorite part of the annual event.
“I like being able to help out,” Goodwin said.
She also offered up what she planned to ask Santa to get her for Christmas this year.
“I have a cousin who is a Marine and I want her to come home safely,” Goodwin said.
Siblings John and Jovie Holtzapple eagerly awaited their chance to talk to Santa on Sunday. Each was armed with their requests for him, too.
“Legos and a Scooby-Doo gun,” John, 5, said.
Jovie, 4, wanted a toy based off a popular children’s television series.
“A talking Dora doll,” Jovie said.
The Festival of Lights continues every Friday and Saturday night at High Street Park from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. until Dec. 22. Santa also will be on hand during the same time period in his house, where he will be accepting visitors.