For 24 years, the Parade of Lights has been a holiday celebration in Thunder Bay, Ontario. On the first Saturday in December, a parade of over 100 colourfully lighted trucks towing trailers and floats slowly winds through the streets of Thunder Bay, flanked by cheering onlookers who eagerly fill donation buckets that are passed along the route.
For just about as long, Autism Ontario has been part of the Parade of Lights. Last year, the annual charitable event, which raises funds for local children's charities, raised over $10,500 alone for Autism Ontario. "All the funds raised by the parade stay in the community, says Erika Luoma, Autism Ontario Fund and Volunteer Coordinator – North Region. “This is very much a community-driven event.”
The parade originally began with a child’s wish to ride in a truck that a local company had decorated with seasonal lights, expresses Greg Stephenson, with the Thunder Bay Police Association, the event’s sponsor. “It turned into a parade; we went with it. The main goal is to raise money for those charities and provide a nice evening of lights to kick off the seasonal spirit. And so that's where it is right now.”
"The parade has run without interruption except for 2020 when it was canceled due to the pandemic," says Greg. Still, he says the spirit was continued with a store window display competition.
As a result of Autism Ontario’s participation, the local autism community in Thunder Bay benefits directly, comments Erika. She says Willow Lem, Autism Ontario’s local regional Program and Volunteer Coordinator, coordinates local programming, including crafts, babysitting safety, and fitness programs. “It's the best way possible for the community at large.”
Autism Ontario looks forward to participating in the Parade of Lights in 2023. In previous years, Autism Ontario’s North Region had used a flatbed truck. This year, out of safety concerns, the Region has switched to a donated school bus and driver, courtesy of First Student Bus Lines. “That’s a significant donation itself,” says Erika. “We're decorating the school bus instead of a truck.” Franki’s Pizzeria, a local restaurant, donates pizza for the team of 20 volunteers who decorate the bus and walk with it as canvassers, collecting donations. “We offer them pizza when they’re decorating the bus.”
“Autism Ontario has been involved with the Parade of Lights since the get-go,” says Erika. "It’s something we’re really proud to be part of.”