Bringing A Community Together

Senator Ritchie’s Weekly Column

Last week, I got to spend an evening with Santa Claus himself at the Lions Club’s Light Up the Night Christmas Parade in downtown Ogdensburg.

Organized by my friend, Rhonda Roethel and her family, the “Light Up the Night Christmas Parade illustrates how a handful of committed individuals can almost singlehandedly breathe new life into a small town’s holiday tradition and create a major event that draws thousands of people together for an evening of fun and community pride. It shows how people can work together to breathe new life into their communities to help them grow and prosper. With New York State looking for ways to spur growth, it shows how a few individuals can work together to make a difference.

A lot of small towns across Central and Northern New York play host to a variety of festivals and parades sponsored by community groups and organizations. Some of them draw huge crowds that line the streets. A few of them have less success. Across Central and Northern New York, parades are part of the fabric of small town life, but over time, even the best of them can lose the spark that makes some of them stand out as a place where the entire community comes together.

Ogdensburg’s annual Santa Claus parade is a case in point, an example of a small town parade that had seen better days. For the past few decades, it had been a small affair, composed of a few scout troops, a dance group and a few other stalwarts, who each year dutifully gathered at a nearby park to shiver while they escorted Santa Claus to city hall where the mayor would light the city’s Christmas tree and officially kick off the holiday season.

Rhonda decided we could do better. She convinced area clubs to work with her to reinvigorate the event. They moved it to the evening and personally asked every business, institution, club and civic group in the area to consider developing a holiday oriented float with the single requirement that it “light up the night.”
A lot of people were skeptical. With all the national and state bad news, a lot of people were having trouble getting into the holiday spirit. But a lot of the skeptics had not counted on how a small group of volunteers could reach out to the members of their community and urge each of them to join them in a gamble on something new. They had not counted on how sometimes there’s a spirit of Christmas and a community spirit that can infect people without them even realizing it.

When I arrived at the parade formation area, the line stretched for blocks, with groups and floats of all descriptions lining up on several side streets. Altogether, close to 70 businesses, clubs, and organizations turned up with an assortment of brightly decorated floats. As the parade began, we saw hundreds of families lining the streets.

As we approached downtown, there were thousands, with crowds as large as four or five people deep lining the streets in front of Ogdensburg’s brightly lit City Hall. Like everyone else, I was pleased but surprised at how many people had come out, how many people had participated, how many people had joined me in gambling on something new. Maybe it was the spirit of the holidays mysteriously moving among us. Maybe it was Santa’s presence. Maybe it was the times and the notion that people needed a break from all the doom and gloom in the state and national headlines.

Or maybe it was just the result of a couple of people who believed, who were willing to roll up their sleeves and make a difference in their community. Maybe it just shows what we can do when we put aside our personal cynicism and rely on friendship and community spirit to guide us. All I know is I’ll be there next year with my pal Santa.