The student news source of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

The Racquet Press

The student news source of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

The Racquet Press

The student news source of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

The Racquet Press

Photo Series: La Crosse’s Holiday tradition, The Rotary Lights

The Rotary Lights Entrance. Photo taken by Trinity Rietmann.

Every year the Rotary Lights illuminate Riverside Park in downtown La Crosse as they welcome in the holiday season and bring the community together for a charitable cause. This is the 29th year the lights have been open, and they have certainly grown since the project was first started in 1995.

Patrick Stephens, president of the Rotary Lights, said, “We’ve got an inventory now of probably 4 million lights. The first year we bought 250,000, so you can see how it’s grown in that period of time.”

The number of lights is not the only thing that has grown in the past years. The amount of food collected for the food pantries has also increased exponentially. 

“The food collections make a tremendous impact in the community. In 1995, our first year, we collected 13,000 food items, and we gave it all to the Salvation Army,” Stephens said. “In contrast to that, last year we collected 341,000 food items and took care of 14 food pantries for three and a half months.”

The Rotary Lights take food and monetary donations at the gate which are invested back into nonprofit organizations in the community. 

“One of the neat things about Rotary Lights is that we give back about $35,000,” said Stephens. “And all those nonprofits turn around and do good things with that money based on their own mission statements.”

Volunteers from numerous nonprofit organizations donate their time to the lights, and in return, their organizations receive donations from the event and are able to display a tree in the park. 

Volunteer Mandy Holen said, “I just really appreciate that I have the opportunity to be down here, and it’s been a lot of fun! I recommend that anyone volunteer if they have the chance because it’s just a good time!”

Greg Butler, another volunteer, spoke about why he believes in dedicating his time to the Rotary Lights. “I think we’re supporting the children of La Crosse,” he said. “I’m here for the kids. They’re amazing!”

Butler and Holen each volunteered for a one-hour shift directing traffic and answering questions for visitors of the lights.

“I have been able to be here at the entrance just welcoming cars in, offering brochures, making sure they know to turn their lights off as they come through and just making sure they have any answers to questions as they come in,” said Holen.

The Rotary Lights run entirely on a volunteer core. “We’re a little over 3,000 volunteers,” Stephens said. “There’s nothing else like it in terms of numbers.”

Holen described why she enjoys volunteering at the lights. “I really like the spirit of the holidays and just seeing the excitement on kids’ faces as you come through,” she said. “It’s just a lot of fun! It’s a good time to be around and makes me feel good!”

Family is a central part of the Rotary Lights experience. Paige Kahoun was visiting the Lights with her son and sister and spoke about how it is a family tradition to come to the Lights every year. 

“My favorite part about the Lights is just spending time with family and getting in the cheer,” she said.

Her little son, Greyson Kahoun, loved all of the lights. His favorite part was “the football guy” who is displayed near the entrance of the park. 

According to Stephens, there are a few new lighting displays in the park this year, including a couple of bears flying a kite and a truck with a bucket on it to recognize the many people in the community who work the high lifts.

“We also redid a lot of our military displays that needed some work,” Stephens said. “I think we’re one of the few displays that has all five of the military crests that are there as a way to thank our service people.”

This season also brings some new entertainment groups to the Rotary Lights.

“We’ve added a great deal of entertainment that we haven’t had before,” said Stephens. “Usually we have high school, college and sometimes church groups that come down and entertain every night in the heated tent that’s down there, but this year we actually hired some professional musicians.”

Coming up on Monday, Dec. 11 and Tuesday, Dec. 12 are the Logan Middle School and high school music groups, A Note Above and the Tri-State Accordion Club. The full entertainment schedule can be found on the SSE Music website

Another highlight of the year is the Rotary Lights’ second annual teddy bear.

“We had our first teddy bear last year, which was kind of like a polar bear, and we decided to sell those to help out Wafer, which is the largest food pantry in the area,” Stephens said. “That went so well that this year we decided to have a second bear. The second bear is Buddy, and we’re doing that with the Boys and Girls Club. All of the proceeds will go to them to help with their nutrition and food program with the kids that they feed.”

According to the Rotary Lights website, Buddy the bear is available for purchase online or at the Rotary Lights gift shop along with the numerous other local retailers listed.

The Rotary Lights have a huge impact on the La Crosse community as a whole, but the Lights are also significant to the students of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Over 30 UWL clubs and organizations participate in the Rotary Lights, but students also come to enjoy the event themselves.

UWL Student Micheal Stack said, “For me, it reminds me of back home in Oshkosh. We have a very similar tradition, and I would always go with my family, so it reminds me of being home, so a Christmas away from home.”

Jonalee Feller, another UWL student, spoke about the Rotary Light’s impact on the community. “I like being able to see how it brings the community together with the donation boxes and everything,” she said.

Stack added, “It’s cool getting away from campus and seeing everyone in the community regardless of if they’re a student at UWL or not.”

Community and family is at the heart of the Rotary Lights as they brighten up the holiday season year after year in La Crosse.

“The other night in the park there was a family of four that was sitting there roasting marshmallows and singing Christmas songs,” Stephens said. “That really is what the season is all about.”

The Rotary Lights are open from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. from Nov. 24 through Dec. 31 with special holiday hours listed for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve.

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About the Contributor
Trinity Rietmann
Trinity Rietmann, Photojournalist
  • Year at UWL: Junior
  • PGPs: she/her/hers
  • Hometown: Baraboo
  • Major: Art Education
  • Minor: Photography and Recreation Management
  • Other Campus Involvement: Women's Rugby Team
  • Future Plans after Graduation: Become an art teacher
  • Favorite activity in La Crosse: Hiking at the Bluffs
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