While Santa, candy, decorations and music were certainly the main draw attractions at last week's Benton Festival of Lights, organizers say the event also provided something more.
"Overall, we used part of the sponsorship money to purchase about 500 hats and gloves," said Rachel Gartner, public information coordinator for Benton. "We went this direction because we all felt it was more important for the kids coming out to have warm hands than a hand full of candy."
Gartner said the committee made up of community volunteers took in more than $2,000 to be used specifically for the festival, now an annual event.
"Businesses and individuals alike were very generous," she said. "We wanted parents to be able to recall their happy holiday memories while making new ones and sharing a tradition with their children."
Brooke and Mitch Hicks of Thompsonville were two parents that took advantage of that opportunity. The couple strolled the Benton Public Square with their "almost-2-year-old" son, Easton, taking in the sights and sounds while awaiting the arrival of Santa.
"This is our first year here," said Brooke, noting the family moved to the area from Kentucky two years ago.
Along with a long list of sponsors, Gartner said there was a core group of volunteers who spent countless hours brainstorming, organizing and decorating.
Gartner said she and the committee made the most of an unexpected wrinkle when "Santa" was called out on a fire call. "We took the time to hand out the free hats and gloves to the kids," she said, "explaining to the children that Santa was helping with a fire call."
Gartner said that even though they gave out around 200 sets of hats and gloves, they were left with another 300.
With the approval of the committee, she began contacting area agencies that might have a need for the items.
Steven Pate, a volunteer who Gartner said "went above and beyond" in helping with the event, joined Gartner at Benton Grade School on Monday, where the pair donated a large box of the winter wear.
Pate said he was glad the items would find a good home. "This is about helping and caring for those in need," he said.
Gartner said donations were also made to CASA, Scarves of Southern Illinois and the Benton Police Department.
While the Square was not closed to traffic for this year's event, Gartner said that will be a matter for future discussion. "Closing the Square is always up for debate when it come to planning events there," she said.
Gartner said she was confident that Police Chief Kyle Melvin and the committee will do what "best guarantees our attendees' safety."
Even with the slight wrinkle, Gartner said she believes the event was a huge success. "The weather was very cooperative," she said, "with just enough chill in the air to make it festive."
She said people enjoyed sharing hot chocolate and spending time with neighbors.
"As my good friend Cathy Garavalia would say, 'It was like the scene out of a Hallmark movie.'"