As far as traditions go in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the Candlelight Stroll may be the equivalent of the star on top of the Christmas tree.
According to the NOTL Chamber of Commerce — the event’s organizer — this hallmark event brings 10,000 locals and tourists together to enjoy the seasonal cheer of music and community. And the warmth of charity.
The Stroll, now in its 30th year, collects donations in the form of candle purchases, and gives the money to a local child in need. This year, the focus is on mental health and inclusion. Janice Thomson, the chamber’s president, says, “We thought about young people in our community as a whole, and specifically about their mental health.” She continues, “We felt there really needs to be inclusion and kindness regarding mental health issues,” so they researched community solutions.
The Chamber’s decision is to install a Buddy Bench at each of the participating NOTL elementary schools. The concept of these colourful seats is to allow school kids to signal their need for support — inclusion, a friend, a kind listener — by sitting on the bench. Their peers are encouraged to then offer their empathy to the person in need. Thomson says, “We hope that the raising of awareness of the importance of both asking for a friend talk to, and of being a friend to others who reach out, will be beneficial to the young people in our town.”
The Buddy Bench concept began in Europe, and has been gaining popularity over the last five years or so in North America.
Recipients of the donations from the Candlelight Stroll are introduced at the opening ceremonies, and then lead the promenade around downtown. Thomson hopes to have groups of students represent each participating school.
Last year the event raised about $12,000, according to Chamber event co-ordinator Nicole Cripps. The amount was particularly high: “We were very fortunate to have an anonymous donor match our funds,” says Cripps.
This year the Candlelight Stroll takes place on Friday, Nov. 30. Carols and speeches begin in front of the Court House at 6:30 p.m. The schoolchildren will start the walk that circulates through 16 choirs at 7 p.m.
Students from Vineridge Academy are staffing collection points for donations to Newark Neighbours. Strollers are encouraged to bring non-perishable foods, new toys (not gift-wrapped) and toiletries for the local charity.
Candles can be purchased at various locations along Queen Street, and at the visitors centre at Fort George — where parking is available, and a shuttle is provided.
“This brightens the world at Christmas,” says Thomson.