Twinkling lights at Willmar's Robbins Island to add a bit of sparkle to a dark year
The third year of Celebrate the Light of the World holiday light display making Robbins Island its home, like so much this year, will look a bit different. But, the mission of the display, to raise people's spirits and raise money for local charities, is more important than ever.
Editor's Note: Story corrected to show Koosman family donated the light display to Willmar Fests. They did not sell it.
WILLMAR — Toward the end of a year that has brought much heartache and despair, we all might need a bit of holiday cheer. Despite some weather- and construction-related setbacks, Willmar Fests is set to offer that cheer when the Celebrate the Light of the World holiday light display make its third annual appearance at Robbins Island.
"We need something bright and shiny to look at and enjoy at the end of this year," said John Schmidt, a Willmar Fests board member who has been leading the installation of the lights at the Willmar park.
Since visitors drive through the display and do not need to leave their vehicles for any reason, Celebrate the Light of the World might be one of the few activities not drastically changed due to COVID-19.
This year's drive-thru display will brighten up the park starting at 5 p.m. Thanksgiving Day. The display will be lit nightly from 5 to 10 p.m. through New Year's Day.
"Come out and enjoy it," Schmidt said.
The main mission of the display — to raise funds for local charities — is probably more important than ever before. It is a tradition begun by Chad Koosman, who created the display at his rural Willmar home for 10 years, before donating it to Willmar Fests in 2018.
This year the freewill donations collected at the end of the display will be split between Habitat for Humanity, Kandiyohi County Food Shelf, United Way and Salvation Army.
"We try to pick organizations that have the largest impact on families, this time of year especially," Schmidt said.
Willmar Fests takes great pride in being able to give all the money to the charities.
"Every single dollar that goes into that donation station is doled out to those four organizations," Schmidt said. "We don't keep a dime of that donation."
Like so much this year, the display and the volunteers on which it relies have faced some challenges. The setup of the display was delayed by three weeks due to weather and the construction taking place at Robbins Island.
It was also a challenge to find the specialized assistance to install the larger trees and structures, which require large equipment. Many of the businesses that have helped with that before are dealing with COVID and a packed schedule.
"We are leaning on a couple of folks to get more done than years past," Schmidt said.
Then, as a perfect metaphor for 2020, the lighted tunnel that visitors drive through at the start of the display — which survived 12 years of weather, wind and storms with few issues — was blown over and seriously damaged soon after being set up last week.
"It just tore that thing apart," said James Miller, Willmar Fests board president. "We were able to get a welder to do some work for us on a quick timeline."
The tunnel was reinstalled Friday and will continue to be a centerpiece of the display.
There have been plenty of other volunteers willing to step up and help string the nearly 800,000 lights across the 52-acre park. While some of the groups from last year decided to sit out due to the pandemic, new groups have stepped up to fill the gap. This has included school sports teams such as the Willmar High School football team and the BOLD High School volleyball team and a group from DREAM Technical Academy.
"I believe we've had more people out there than the last two years," Schmidt said. "That is good to see."
Despite the challenges thrown at this year's display, Schmidt is confident come Thanksgiving night, there will be a holiday wonderland awaiting visitors, even though it won't look the same as last year, due to all the issues that have come up.
"It will look good. We will have a display up," Schmidt said. "It is a different display this year."
Schmidt invites everyone from the area to visit Robbins Island, to enjoy the lights and atmosphere, but to also donate what they can to help those in the community who need it most.
"Come out and enjoy some lights," Schmidt said. "It should put a smile on anybody's face."