The celebrated We Care Park that brightens the north side of Kokomo – and the spirits of the thousands who go through annually – is lighting up for the 26th and last time on Thanksgiving evening.
This year marks the final year for the popular light display that was featured on ABC’s “Great American Light Fight” in 2018, as its founder, Mike Wyant, is hanging up his hat at age 75. But he’s not phoning this one in. As always, the display has built on the year before and offers more lights, more features, and more displays.
“I’m hoping it’ll be the best year yet. Every year that’s the idea, but with what’s going on in the world, we hope to see people enjoy it,” Wyant said. “But we just hope to have a good year since it’s going to be my last year and the final year for We Care Park.”
While Wyant lost count years ago of how many lights are in the park – he stopped counting at 1 million – he has continued to add hundreds of thousands of new lights annually. The park is so expansive that Wyant and his volunteers begin setting up each year in August.
This year, attendees can expect to see a lot of new LED lights and “so many” new sleighs and deer.
“We’ve added a lot more stuff because I wanted to empty my warehouse, and I did empty it,” he said, laughing.
Another tradition that’s returning is the Erik’s Chevrolet car giveaway. Starting Monday, Nov. 30, 2,000 keys will be handed out to attendees, and the following week, those with a key can go to Erik’s Chevrolet to try their key. If it works, they win the car. The winner is responsible for paying sales tax.
And, as always, truckloads of toys will be given to children, though they will be given away in the park this year, rather than Wyant’s garage due to COVID-19. All year toys have been collected, and there’s about 12 to 14 truckloads ready to be given away.
The toy giveaway, Wyant said, is always one of his favorite parts. For more than a quarter-century, he’s seen children’s faces light up when they get to pick out a toy, and it reminds him of his own childhood. Wyant was one of 16 children, and they didn’t have a lot. But, they did get one toy every Christmas, and it meant the world to them, he said.
“I know what it can be like at Christmastime, and it’s not that we didn’t get something. It’s just that one thing was like giving us 20 things,” Wyant said. “We were so excited when Christmas came, and even though we got maybe one little gift, to us, it was a new car.”
Wyant said his parents taught him and his many siblings the importance of giving back, and he has striven to do just that with his light display that, in turn, has brought him a lot of joy. Over the years, all donations have gone to We Care. Last year, the nonprofit received $53,000 from We Care Park.
This year, the beneficiaries, for the first time, will be a little different. On Dec. 11, Wyant will present We Care with its final check, one that Wyant predicted will be higher than last year’s. Then, from that day until the end of We Care Park, on Dec. 27, donations will go to Shop with a Cop and Carver Community Center.
The We Care Founder chose those, he said, due to the work they do for children.
“They help a lot of children, and that’s what it’s all about,” Wyant said. “If you bring your children up and help your children, I’ve seen kids grow up and come back and help us. They give back. Tell all children, ‘When you grow up and you be successful, help somebody because it makes your heart feel good.’ It really does.”
With this being his last year, Wyant said it’s bittersweet. He’s been helping We Care since it started in 1973, long before he started We Care Park. In We Care's early days, Wyant would dress as Santa and collect money in downtown Kokomo.
When he started his light display, he never expected to grow into what it did. He started with 66,000 lights, which he remembered thinking was remarkable. The very first year, he put out a donation box, and he said people were generous. That gave him the idea to grow on it and see how much could be collected to benefit We Care.
“I didn’t think it could come to this where it would raise $50,000 to $70,000, $80,000 a year. I wouldn’t want to live in any other community than Kokomo, Ind., because of the way they are. They are just so giving, and they help others. And that’s just Kokomo,” he said.
While attendees can expect much of the same this year, a few changes have been made due to COVID-19. Walk-through guests are asked to wear masks, and no hot chocolate will be passed out.
Wyant thanked everyone who has helped him throughout the past nearly three decades, including his brother Ralph, Coca-Cola, Sunbelt Rentals, Erik’s Chevrolet, Handy Hardware, Barker’s B&K, the Kokomo Police Department, the Kokomo Fire Department, his volunteers, and his neighbors.
“It’s very bittersweet for me, very bittersweet. It’s just when you’re involved in something like I’ve been involved in for that many years, you kind of hate to shut it down. But I’ll still support We Care, and I hope they just continue to help people,” he said.
While this is the end for We Care Park, Wyant sold upwards of 900,000 lights to someone locally and said there may be a surprise in the future.
We Care Park opens at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day and runs daily through Dec. 27 from 6 to 9 p.m., though if traffic is steady it will stay open later. The park is located along East Gano Street, west of Apperson Way.