The excitement in the air was clearly evident as the crowd gathered outside the Court House Friday, grateful to be out on a perfect evening for the Candlelight Stroll, always one of the most popular events to celebrate the Christmas season in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
As the Salvation Army Band played outside, inside, Dani Botbyl spoke about her son Devon being chosen to lead the stroll.
The 18-year-old Virgil resident was born with a rare chromosome condition that leaves him with global delays and autistic tendencies, and as if that isn’t enough of a challenge for him to deal with, in June he had another added to his list when he was diagnosed with lymphoma, Dani explained. In September, he finished five months of immunotherapy and chemotherapy treatments.
The pandemic, Dani said, “closed so many of his social doors,” not only putting an end to hanging out with friends, but shutting down his programming at school and Red Roof Retreat. He’s just started back, and he’s thrilled, she added.
“Thank you from the bottom of our hearts,” said Dani. “Having the support of the community, where we’ve lived our whole lives — words can’t express how grateful we are.”
Devon was delighted to be in the spotlight at the Court House — he has a heart-warming and boyish smile that couldn’t help but charm those gathered to celebrate his participation in the stroll.
In addition to the event being an important tradition in Niagara-on-the-Lake, said NOTL Chamber of Commerce president Eduardo Lafforgue, giving back is to the community is an important component. Helping out a local family “reminds us of our sense of community, reminds us of our Christmas spirit, and who we are. It is so important to keep up these traditions.”
The advance sales of candles indicated the community’s support for Devon, and for having the Candlelight Stroll back after a year’s absence, he added.
The moment the candles are lit is always magical, but this year even more so as Devon made his way down the steps of the Court House to share his candle flame with those waiting for the event to begin. The local teen struggles with mobility issues, but there was no mistaking the joy he experienced as he carried out his role as leader of this year’s stroll.
“This is the season, and you are the reason why we gather to celebrate the bounty of this year in our community,” said Town Crier Tom Pekar, as he welcomed those gathered at the Court House, and introduced Devon.
“By the powers invested in me, I declare the opening of the 2021 Candlelight Stroll. Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!”
This was the 32nd Candlelight Stroll organized by the Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce, and Pekar explained for those new to the event that it was started by local resident Arthur Nieuwdorp, who developed the idea in 1988 during the lead-up to the Calgary Winter Olympics. He watched the Olympic torch relay as it travelled across the country, and was inspired to create a community event that would reflect the spirit of giving and the beauty of a NOTL Christmas. The funds raised from the sale of the candles that first year were donated to a young girl with cystic fibrosis.
This tradition has continued, to help someone in need with a donation from the money raised from candle sales going to families and children in need, and other important causes.
In recent years, a portion of the proceeds has also helped migrant farmworkers.
This year, says Lafforgue, $1,000 will go to support the farmworkers’ Hub at Cornerstone Church, run by local volunteers, and the remaining funds, about $6,500, will go to Devon’s family. They are hoping to install an elevator in their home to help Devon access the second floor.
Lafforgue says the funds raised were about the same or maybe slightly more than 2019, with two generous anonymous donations, and others who gave more than the price of the candles.
“We are so happy that it went so well. Everybody was wearing their masks. My team, Stan Harrington and his grandchildren, the ambassadors and all the volunteers of all ages were fantastic and so helpful — real team work.”
After stopping for photos beside a horse-drawn Sentineal carriage, Devon and his family wound their way through the streets of the Old Town behind dignitaries leading the way, followed by an excited crowd and the glow of their candles lighting up the holiday season.