Gwendine Norton was outside her home repairing Christmas lights in 1996 when a woman who admired the display stopped by and offered her a couple of dollars.
“I said, ‘No, thank you,’” Norton said. “Why don’t you take it to the food bank?”
The encounter got Norton to thinking. During a National Night Out meeting with her neighbors the following August, a plan was hatched. Since 1997, she and her Timberline Park neighbors have decorated their homes and yards with Christmas lights and fixtures. As hundreds of visitors come to the cul-de-sac to see the displays, Norton and her 11 neighbors collect money and nonperishable food for the Lynnwood Food Bank.
“We see the most amazing stories every year,” Norton said.
Teenagers come by, empty the coins out of their car ashtrays and apologize for not giving more.
People rarely donate just a dollar or one food item to the food bank. Visiting neighborhoods who are collecting for local organizations gives those people the opportunity to donate whatever they have, no matter how little.
“It gives them a way to participate,” Norton said. “The quarter, the dollar, the penny. It all adds up.”
In 2003, the neighborhood collected more than $21,000 in donations and more than 7,000 pounds of food. That’s a long way from their first Christmas light adventure in 1997, which brought in $5,500 and 2,000 pounds of food.
“I just say, ‘Thank you, God.’ It’s a blessing,” said Peg Amarok, director of the Lynnwood Food Bank. “I don’t know what I’d do without them.”
This year has been hard for the food bank, particularly when it comes to Thanksgiving meals. Since the Brier light displays won’t begin until after Thanksgiving, that leaves Amarok and her staff in a bind.” So far this year, we’ve received one turkey,” Amarok said.
She and her staff appreciate whatever donations they receive from people who stop by to see the holiday lights at Timberline Park.
Norton and her neighbors “have always been a fantastic blessing for our food bank,” Amarok said. “I don’t think even they can know how much they are appreciated.”
People come from as far as Burlington and Tacoma to see the Timberline Park lights. It’s become a Christmas Eve tradition for some families, whose kids come in their pajamas. Some parents encourage their children to give the donations of food or money.
This year, the neighbors will hand out 28,000 candy canes, as well as dog biscuits for canine friends out with their families.
Visitors can expect to see holiday treasures including an ornamental carousel with reindeer and elves instead of horses; Elfco Field, where elves play softball and golf; Santa and his reindeer; a Nativity scene; and the lights.
Before they buy their homes, new neighbors are informed about the holiday lights and what happens at Timberline Park during the Christmas season.
“They know about it coming in,” said Ronn Bellecy, Norton’s neighbor.
Bellecy was thrilled when he and his wife, Dianna, moved to Timberline Park. Although the couple did not have any children at the time, Ronn Bellecy had always wanted to be a part of something similar, he said.
“He was a riot when we told him,” Norton said. “He jumped right on board.”
For Norton, the kindness is often overwhelming when she sees what visitors donate.
A couple of years ago, as Norton was getting ready for Christmas Eve, a knock came to her door. It was someone asking if they could still make a donation. “I said, ‘Sure,’” Norton said.
When she saw that the couple had taken their two teenage children to Costco and filled a pickup truck with food, Norton stood in the garage and bawled.
As Norton thinks about people’s kindness, one thought comes popping back into her head like a Christmas light twinkling in the night.
“The interesting thing to me is that people want to thank us,” Norton said. “We say, ‘No, thank you.’”Christina Harper is a reporter for The Herald newspaper in Everett.