KOKOMO, Ind. — Every December, a two-block area on Kokomo’s north side lights up with more than a million Christmas lights and decorations, drawing hundreds of visitors and raising money to help needy families have a happy holiday.
From the time We Care Park opens Thanksgiving weekend, until the last visitors leave on New Year’s Day, chances are good that Tyler Willhite is there, just as he has been each holiday season since he was 8.
Willhite, 21, a senior at Indiana University Kokomo, plays a role in creating this tradition; assisting in the three-month process it takes each year to set up the lights and decorations at the two block million-light display on North Gano Street.
Willhite spends more than eight hours at the park some days, even after work and school. But the long hours are worth it, because of the memories children and families make every year at the park.
“Seeing a smile on someone’s face, that’s the paycheck right there,” Willhite said.
In 2014, the park raised $61,000, which goes to We Care. We Care is an organization that serves other local non-profits like Salvation Army, Goodfellows, Kokomo Rescue Mission, Bona Vista, and the Mental Health Association, all of which assist families in need.
Mike Wyant, We Care Park founder and coordinator, said Willhite is an invaluable member of his volunteer team, which begins work in August, and takes down the last decoration by February.
“He knows this place left and right,” Wyant said. “He could set it up all by himself.”
Willhite grew up just one block away from Wyant’s home, and first volunteered because it was a way to stay busy and help with the light spectacle he witnessed each year. He stayed because of the warm welcome he received from Mike Wyant and his brother, Ralph Wyant.
“They showed me such love, and were very caring,” he said. “I liked being around them, so it stuck.”
Willhite, together with the other volunteers, creates walkways for visitors, lights up the lawns, constructs the canopy and hanging displays, and even mows the grass around the Christmas lawn ornaments while it’s still warm. Some equipment, like the canopy stretching over North Market Street, takes more than a week to construct and suspend over the road.
“He’s such a good kid,” Mike Wyant said. “We’re happy to have him around to help out.”
After graduation, Willhite wants to work close to his home in Kokomo and continue his work with We Care Park. He also mentioned using his knowledge in finance to continue the tradition when Wyant is ready to retire.
“It’s something that is important to a lot of people,” he said, “I’d hate to see it go away when it’s turned into something that people count on every year.”
Despite the long hours he spends at We Care Park and being a full-time student in the School of Business, Willhite finds time to help on campus, in the community and beyond.
On campus, Willhite participates in Enactus, a student group that uses business skills to help the community. This semester, Willhite and his team worked to enhance the campus food pantry, leading a food drive and planning a marketing campaign.
While the project took some time, Willhite thinks it’s a good resource for students and others in Kokomo who are in need.
Off campus, Willhite serves as director of youth ministries at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Kokomo. He also spends his time helping the elderly members and participating in a number of mission trips with the church.
“I do odd jobs to help anyone I can,” Willhite said. “Everyone needs a little help sometimes and I’m not the kind of person to tell them no.”
Story written by Kaitlin Fallowfield. Kaitlin is an intern in the Office of Media & Marketing.
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.