Our Daytonians of the Week inspire magic with their popular holiday lights display

Credit: Amber and Lewis Willeford

Credit: Amber and Lewis Willeford

For over three decades, Fort St. Clair’s Whispering Christmas lights display has been both a literal and figurative beacon of light in Eaton. And, for the past three years, Amber and Lewis Willeford have served as the head of the holiday operation that has become a yearly tradition for many families across the Miami Valley.

With the help of the Willefords, Whispering Christmas has turned into a monumental lights display, boasting an impressive two million lights and dozens of unique fixtures. Though they have worked hard to curate a magical display, the married couple attributes the success of the Whispering Christmas lights display to the hardworking volunteers and community members who have come together every year since 1987 to ensure that the holiday tradition remains one of the best in the area.

Now, in their own words, Amber and Lewis Willeford reveal how their work with the Whispering Christmas display inspires others to believe in the magic of the holiday season.

Tell us about your background. What has led you to this point in your career?

Whispering Christmas is a 100 percent volunteer effort. Amber has managed volunteers and worked in public communications as a career for over 20 years. Lewis brings the logistical side through his career experience of over 20 years as well. When we were asked to lead Whispering Christmas, it gave us both an opportunity to utilize our career strengths to give back to the community through this most beloved local tradition.

How long have you both been involved with Whispering Christmas?

Volunteering for nine years and co-chairs for the last three years.

How did the creation of the Whispering Christmas lights display come about?

The lights began 34 years ago with only a couple of volunteers who hung 800 lights on the Main Cabin at the Fort. Each year, more lights were added, and today, we have an average of 35 to 40 volunteers working each weekend beginning mid-October and until we open the week of Thanksgiving.

Credit: Lewis and Amber Willeford

Credit: Lewis and Amber Willeford

What do you love about your job?

Working with our amazing volunteers! There is no way this event could take place without them. We have dedicated groups and individuals that come out in the rain, sleet, snow and high winds to ensure this event can take place. We start in mid-October to set up, and the week after the New Year, begin taking everything down. Our volunteers donate numerous hours every Saturday and Sunday to set up and take down until the job is done. The Battle of the Areas has been a huge hit and gives a little friendly competition for our volunteers. This year, we had groups participate from Henny Penny, Bullen Ultrasonics, National Trail MVCTC FFA, Reid Health, IU East, Blue Star Mothers and several family groups. We are always excited to see who wins the battle as we encourage attendees to vote for their favorite area. The winning team gets a traveling trophy, bragging rights for a year and their pick of a display for their area the next year. So far, the beaver cutting down the tree has been the top pick for the champions.

A close second would be opening night. The first time we open the gates for the season and you can hear the children yelling, “Look!,” and families laughing together as they make their way through the park. That really makes all the work worth it.

In what ways is this work fulfilling for you and for the community that enjoys your lights display?

We feel that Whispering Christmas brings our community together in multiple ways, such as our local stores donating items, local restaurants helping to ensure our volunteers have hot meals as they spend their weekends getting the event ready and taking it back down, local businesses participating in our Battle of the Areas, the city of Eaton employees and police department ensuring that we have what we need for the event to continue each year and the share and re-shares of our Facebook posts. It’s like a community rally for happiness! We are so appreciative and thankful for each person and place that comes together on behalf of Whispering Christmas.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

What do you find especially magical about the holiday season?

It’s the season of giving! Knowing that we are part of something which provides so much joy, happiness and a yearly tradition for families creates the magic.

What’s been your most recent professional challenge, and how did you push through the challenge?

Our biggest challenge this year has been change. Due to COVID-19, we have had lots of changes, from the cabins being closed to closing the gates early to ensure we can get our volunteers home to align with the statewide curfew. Because we have attendees from other states drive through, not everyone understands or knows about the curfew.

How have you had to pivot professionally to cope with challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Our volunteers know what an important tradition Whispering Christmas is for our community and surrounding areas. Though we had to pivot significantly for the season, we wanted to ensure we could still give our attendees a little piece of their “normal” experience.

We were able to change Jingle Jog 5K to a virtual 5K, allowing registrants to choose the night and time they came out to participate.

We had to change the traditional light event to a drive-through-only experience — no stopping, parking or pulling off on the side of the path. In order to ensure that we could maintain traffic flow, we added two and a half extra miles of lights to block off parking areas.

Though we had to close the cabins, we ensured that everyone could still see Santa and Mrs. Claus by placing them in the gazebo at the bottom of the park and having them wave and shout Christmas cheer as cars drove by. We also added a Santa Letter drop box close to the gazebo so children could still get their Christmas list to the big guy!

There will also be no hot cocoa and cookies next to the cozy fireplace this year. However, we have had wonderful groups and organizations come out and hand out candy canes to those who wish to receive them as they drive by in their vehicles. Of course, our “serving” groups adhere to guidelines and everyone wears a mask and gloves as they are handing treats out.

We were unable to sell mugs and ornaments in the cabins this year, which is another big tradition. We are thankful to have such strong community partners (Eaton Floral, LLC, 1808 Cafe and the City of Eaton) that offered to sell the mugs and ornaments on our behalf.

Credit: Lewis and Amber Willeford

Credit: Lewis and Amber Willeford

What are your favorite places to grab a bite to eat in the Eaton area?

We are especially fond of the restaurants who have been gracious enough in this very difficult year to provide meals for our volunteers on work weekends (set up, tear down). Those are: McDonalds, Wings Etc., Skyline Chili, Little Caesars and Buckeye Jake’s Eatery in West Alexandria (just a short drive from Whispering Christmas).

What inspires you about Dayton?

We love the many outdoor activities, the close, connected communities and great places to shop and eat.

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