They wanted the focus to be on more magical moments, and organizer Beth Ortega and a large team of volunteers accomplished that Nov. 24 to make the Holiday Illuminated Parade the biggest one yet. Police estimated the crowd at 15,000.
“The parade was a huge success, and we have been told it is likely the biggest turnout for a parade that O’Fallon has ever seen. We had over 75 illuminated units in the parade and had incredible cooperation and holiday cheer from everyone involved,” Ortega said.
“We are hoping to lengthen the parade route next year to accommodate the growth of our amazing crowds,” she said.
Ortega took the reins as chair in 2017, 24 hours after the parade had been canceled. The Van Etten family, who had given their heart and soul to the annual event, could no longer organize it last fall, and she did not want it canceled.
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With an army of volunteers, Ortega and crew put together the event in three weeks.
“I knew people would step up and make it epic. I wanted people to have the chance to show the Van Etten family that their work was loved and appreciated. They did it for the whole town to enjoy,” she said.
After last year’s success, she set out to make this year’s event better and bigger.
Her elves coordinated lighted vehicles and floats, dancers and characters, all to welcome Santa Claus. Bike Surgeon hosted the free post-parade party with free popcorn and hot chocolate, holiday crafts and character greetings, plus the chance to take photos with Santa Claus.
“Delays in the construction of the O’Fallon Station left us homeless for the post parade fun. Bike Surgeon immediately stepped up and provided us a fantastic home for this year! They are an amazing asset to our community and we cannot thank you enough to be my wingmen. Santa definitely has them on the nice list,” she said.
The enchantment expressed is something Ortega will never forget. It’s a joy for all ages and an ongoing community tradition, she said.
“It’s always hard to find the words to convey how big this parade is, in size and in spirit. Our all-volunteer crew simply loves putting on the parade,” she said.
“I was so fortunate to be in the last truck out, right before Santa’s float this year -- the look of absolute enchantment on all of the kids’ faces -- their excitement was palpable, and, well, there is nothing in the world better than that absolute, unfiltered magic in the simple joy life brings us, especially now when there is so much negativity and disbelief in all that is around us. This parade gives us a place to all be on the same page, with no agenda, and with no differences between us. And we can’t put a price tag on that,” she said.
Ortega pointed out that the parade is completely financially independent of other holiday activities in O’Fallon and she praised the sponsors.
“We work very hard to keep this event completely free to our community and a make it a great place for everyone to find some holiday magic. Without our sponsors, we couldn’t possibly make this happen. We had a scary few days when we realized many of our sponsors had already given to a separate event this year, leaving our budget extremely limited. Thanks to Jon Greenstreet and all our other volunteers’ hard work and creativity, we managed to make it happen once again. We hope more businesses will be able to help us fill this event with even more magic and help us keep it free to our community again next year,” she said.
The community goodwill was overflowing that Saturday night, and compliments have been glowing.
Mayor Herb Roach was thrilled about the successful second year after last year’s relaunch.
“This parade is a great part of our city,” he said. “It’s a way for us to come together as a community and celebrate the holiday season. You should have seen the faces of the children and many of the adults. People were lined up eight and 10 deep. Down the route, people were putting out chairs along the route before noon on the day of the parade.”
“With Beth’s fantastic leadership and the great assistance from her elves, it was a very successful event and may be the best ever. We can’t say thank you enough to all involved,” Roach said.
Ward 1 Alderman Ross Rosenberg, a personal friend of Ortega’s and a helper, pointed out the community pride, and how fulfilling the event was.
“For the second year in a row, Beth Ortega has reached into her bag of awesomeness and pulled out a true, old-fashioned, O’Fallon victory. It was an honor to have been included, with the rest of the ‘elves,’ to make this event the resounding success that it was for the many thousands who came out to show their support. After all, the people of O’Fallon are the very reason that we do these things! I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of this small-town community.”
Community leaders also were ecstatic.
John “Woody” Almind, who is president of the O’Fallon Rotary and rode on the club’s float, complimented Ortega and Chad Schwarz.
“It was a huge success because of their hard work,” he said. “I just love O’Fallon. I’ve been in several parades and this one had the biggest crowd I’ve seen. It was simply awesome. I just loved seeing all the wonderful smiling kids along the parade route.”
LeeAnn Hembrough of Advanced Title Solution, who was among the “elves” working behind the scenes, praised her friend’s efforts.
“Beth is truly a phenomenal human being. Her creativity and vision made this happen,” she said.
“It is so rewarding to put in this kind of hard work and see the look of pure joy on thousands of kids’ faces, not to mention seeing generations of families sitting together, laughing, singing and spending quality time together. This is what Christmas is all about,” she said.
The committee included Ortega and her husband, Jeff; Jon Greenstreet and his wife, Emily Greenstreet, who is a business partner with Ortega; Heather Hinson; Tina Anshus; LeeAnn Hembrough; Kristen Broyles; Chad Schwarz; Peggy and William Dohlke; Mo Wilkerson; Rob Stroh; Joni Bugger Fultz and Ella; Marci and Rich Lapolice, and family; Jenn and Dan Mersinger; and Don and Linda Spradling.
Other volunteers included the following: Jeremy Selders, Chrissie Rud, Jeff Hinson, Stu Carter (and grandson), Roger Van Etten (and Mom), Holly and Andrew Joseph, Nicole Lobring, Melanie Brown, Pam Stacey, Sue Meyer, Narni Cahill, Ann and Nels Wilt, Mersinger extended family, Dohlke extended family, O’Fallon Police Department, Mayor Roach, Grant Litteken, Ross Rosenberg, administrators at City Hall, and many more, Ortega said.
The reason she took over the parade was to create a special connection with residents to their city, Ortega said.
“Christmas is about bringing people together, spreading joy, and finding time for family and friends. And the parade is an opportunity to make all that tangible,” she said. “People missed having a community to be a part of, and this shows that we definitely have one that wants you in it,” she said.
Hembrough summed it up: “It takes a village to make it happen.”
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