Lights of Love honors founder Program celebrates 25 years, benefiting hospice and auxiliary
Winchester — Margie Sheppard believes Christmas is a time to remember others, and when she decided to involve the community in that idea, it blossomed into the Lights of Love program that this week is celebrating its 25th anniversary.
“Christmas is definitely memories and caring and sharing,” she said. “They say making a difference in the world starts with one person, one action. Lights of Love started something, and wouldn’t it be wonderful if it would eventually light up the world?”
Lights of Love allows people to honor or remember a loved one through a light on a tree. A project of the Winchester Medical Center Auxiliary, individuals, groups or businesses buy lights with a minimum donation of $5 apiece, and the proceeds benefit projects of WMC and Blue Ridge Hospice.
“We were concerned about the commercialization of Christmas and wanted to develop a spirit of sharing and caring in the community,” said Sheppard, who founded the program in Winchester. “This is for anyone to give or be recognized — a child, a parent, grandparents, teachers, anyone throughout the Winchester-Frederick (County) community. We did not want just big corporations involved. So we thought, ‘Why not a tree?’ It sort of went from there.”
She started researching and found a hospital in Georgia that was doing something similar. The auxiliary liked the idea, voted to include Blue Ridge Hospice, and the program began as soon as the hospital moved to its present location on Amherst Street.
At this year’s ceremony, set for 7 p.m. Saturday at WMC, Sheppard will be the official tree lighter, an honor that annually has been given to a person who has contributed to the community.
Lights of Love co-chairman Karen Dains said the auxiliary and hospice usually nominate people who do a lot of community service, then the honoree is selected by a vote.
“This year we didn’t do ballots and voting because in 1988, Margie Sheppard founded it,” Dains said. “She’ll do the dedication and lighting of the tree. This is our 25th year, and it’s special.”
This year the outside ceremony includes songs by children from the Valley Health Child Care Center, the blessing of the tree, and the dedication and lighting of the tree. Then everyone is invited inside to the Courtyard Cafe for cookies and hot chocolate or coffee. Holiday music will be played by Glenn Caluda, a guitar professor at Shenandoah Conservatory of Shenandoah University, she said.
“It’s a wonderful project, very uplifting,” Dains said. “People remember their loved ones and honor them. It’s just a special night, especially for people who just lost their loved ones.”
The project has made almost $536,000 over the last 25 years, and last year it received $40,000, she said.
This year the auxiliary might use its part of the proceeds on its mobility service project, which would mean providing a golf-cart-type of mobile chair for people going into the hospital’s new North Tower, Dains said.
“It’s a long walk for people who can’t navigate well,” she said.
The hospice puts its portion into its general patient care fund every year, according to Blue Ridge Hospice President and Chief Executive Officer Ernie Carnevale.
“I don’t know what we’d do without their incredible support for us over the years,” he said. “The money they donate each and every year guarantees no one is turned away.”
The general patient care fund assists “those folks who don’t have the resources or have special needs,” Carnevale said. “We’ve done some very remarkable things to help support people.”
The hospice saw a large increase in its charitable care, and needs can range from someone who has no health insurance to a person who needs help to stay warm on a cold winter night, he said.
“We still continue to see people in need out there,” Carnevale said. “We’ve probably served another 1,000 patients this year. It’s been about that for the last three or four years. We don’t want those people to fall between the cracks.”
When Dec. 1 arrives every year, Carnevale is at the ceremony.
“I always think of those family members who I’ve lost whose lights are up there. I think of all the patients we’ve served whose lights are up there,” he said.” It’s a sweet and very moving event.”
Lights of Love treasurer Melanie Melester said this year the project is on track with last year, and it’s come a long way since the first year, when donations totaled around $6,000.
“Donations are still coming in this week,” she said. “Some people don't realize that after Dec. 1 they can still mail in donations and still receive an acknowledgment.”
So far, about 80 percent of donations are “repeats,” Melester said.
“Some people have a long list. They keep track of people who have passed away over the years and honor them every year,” she said. “We get them from all over the country, too — Oklahoma, California. A large percent of those have people connected to this area.”
Donations are not always given for people known personally, and many are made for four-legged friends.
“Pets are honored all the time,” Melester said. “There are a lot of people out there who feel that way about their pets. And there’s one lady who for years and years and years has honored Princess Diana.”
Some people will write, she added. “They feel the need to tell you about people. They just need to tell you their story sometimes. I love doing this because I remember there is a reason behind these lights.”
When the tree is lit at the ceremony, Melester said, “it’s just absolutely amazing to witness the people who come to see. It’s so symbolic for them. People who buy lights are giving their love. This time of year, it really does mean a lot for someone.”
It means a lot to Nancy S. Omps of Omps Funeral Homes.
Although Dains and Melester said few businesses are among the donors, the funeral home has been a faithful contributor for years and is their largest donor.
For Omps, it’s personal.
“It started when my father died,” she said. “A friend gave me a light for him on the tree. I was so touched.”
The business has been donating a light for every family it serves throughout the year, and they have been doing it for about 15 years, Omps said.
“We’re up to over 400 this year,” she said. “It’s hard for a funeral home to do something for families. We don’t have anything to give. The auxiliary does such great work, and I think what they do with the donations is just incredible.”
Omps also attends the lighting ceremonies and said, “It’s just amazing to see when those lights come on.”
For Sheppard, that is the start of the holiday season.
“Despite all the Black Fridays, this is the beginning of Christmas for me,” she said. “When they throw that light switch, everybody oohs and ahs. It’s just a special moment. It brings joy when you love someone to be able to donate something for that person. That’s the spirit of Christmas.”
For a donation of $5 or more, a light will shine in honor or memory of a loved one on the Lights of Love trees at Winchester Medical Center. A community tree lighting ceremony will be held at 7 p.m. Saturday in front of the tree on Amherst Street in Winchester. Donation envelopes can be found at both information desks, the Gift Shops at WMC and Cork Street, Auxiliary Attic, and the Volunteer Office. For more information, call the Volunteer Office at 540-536-8156.