By Tyler S. Witkop Turley Publications Staff Writer
Like a fireplace on a cold winter’s night, the 18-foot Norway spruce at Gazebo Park projected the spirit of warmth and love on Sunday night. Just in time for the holidays, folks of all ages gathered for the annual Tree Lighting Ceremony and a visit from the Jolly Ol’ Elf. Despite the chill in the air, hundreds of residents came out to witness the annual tradition, coordinated each year by the Wilbraham-Hampden Rotary Club and sponsored by The Wilbraham-Hampden Times and Landmark Realtors. While some of the adults noticed the handy work of Jack Frost, none of the children seemed to mind, playing reindeer games in anticipation of the lighting and the arrival of Santa Claus. Unlike on Christmas Eve, there was no mistaking the arrival. With sirens blaring from a police escort, Main Street came to a halt to ensure he made it safely to his place of prominence in town. This year Santa arrived at Gazebo Park on a holiday-themed golf cart driven by Chris Reed, director of Facilities at Wilbraham & Monson Academy. This year, for the first time, the event moved to Gazebo Park, as the tree in nearby Crane Park grew to unmanageable heights and the lower branches became unsightly. The Rotary Club spent more than $3,000 to plant the new tree and install electrical hookup for the event, receiving approval from the Board of Selectmen and assistance from the Highway Department. Additionally, Graziano Gardens helped with tree’s acquisition and Northern Tree Service helped string the lights in time for the big day. Club president Ann Marie Ottoson thanked everyone for coming to what has become the club’s shining tradition. She noted that without the hard work of Dr. Ed McFarland, Walter Markett and Ron Serra, the ceremony could not have taken place. “It’s an honor and a privilege to be here,” state Rep. Angelo Puppolo Jr., D-Springfield, said, greeting the residents and helping to kick-off the event. “It’s always great to see so many people gathered here in the center of Wilbraham for the annual Tree Lighting.” Puppolo thanked the Rotary Club for their work and Wilbraham Brownie Troop 64587 for singing and providing carol books for residents. He also thanked Santa Claus for making the trip from the North Pole to fill the town with holiday cheer. With her opportunity behind the microphone, Board of Selectmen Chairman Susan Bunnell took the time to “extend a message of gratitude” on behalf of the town. In a flash, following a quick count of three, the new spruce shone like a beacon directing the attention of any visitor to the town to Gazebo Park for the display of red, green and blue lights. Santa Claus then made his way to the gazebo to meet with children who wished to reiterate their Christmas desires. With impeccable memory, he remembered the “special cookies” the children left for him last year and requested they do the same this year. His elves, he told them, were fast at work and would try very hard to make every gift on their list.
Hampden Following Wilbraham’s ceremony, the town of Hampden held its Tree Lighting event from the steps of the Town House, with a large crowd of nearly 200 people gathered to see the evergreen light up the night’s sky. Board of Selectmen Chairman John D. Flynn and the Rev. Todd Farnsworth of Hampden’s Federated Community Church led the townspeople in the singing of carols like “Jingle Bells” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” In mid-song, Main Street lit up with flashing red and blue lights and sirens from the police and fire vehicles. Flynn gave the signal and the tree lit up just as the emergency responders escorted Santa and Mrs. Claus out of Engine 1 and into the auditorium to the joy of the children. This year, children received golden tickets to speak with Santa and each that wished to waited patiently in line with their parents to give him their requests. While they waited, the Girl Scouts and Brownie Troops served baked goods and juice, and took non-perishable food donations for those in need. Samantha Zeno, a Minnechaug Regional High School student and Student Council member, sold wreaths outside during the event. Proceeds from the sales support various activities and trips of the Student Council throughout the year. Within 20 minutes of setting up, Zeno sold three of the six wreaths she had available. ... See MoreSee Less
By Ruth DiCristoforo Turley Publications Correspondent
Eleven year old Stephen Cooley is discovering firsthand how much people “really care about space travel.” Last year, as a fifth grader at Academy Hill School in Springfield, he initiated a “Nickels for NASA” fundraising movement within his school generating out-of-this-world outcomes for this young boy and his school community. As early as preschool, Stephen, the son of Jim and Christine Cooley of Wilbraham, has been fascinated with stars and constellations from his very first reading of the book, “Night Sky.” A recent family trip to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida further ignited his passion for learning about Mars, especially about sending humans to the Red Planet. Stephen reports, “My favorite part at NASA was the Mars exhibit. They had a room full of the Atlantis space shuttle, straight from the last re-entry, the fuel tank and gigantic solid rocket boosters. After my trip to NASA I gave a presentation on my school’s morning show about NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover last year. My trip made me want to learn more about this subject. My research led me to realize if every child in the U.S.A. gave 5 cents to NASA I could collect over $4 million dollars and fund a project to Mars.” The “Nickels for NASA” project was developed out of Stephen’s keen interest in space and rockets. He continued, “I put one jar on a table with a poster explaining the project, at the school entrance and told people about the project in the school newsletter. After this, everything really took off.” Stephen’s project inspired a guest lecture from a local life sciences and industrial solutions business, including a personal connection with a former SpaceX intern, Joe Beaupre, of Wilbraham, who extended an invitation to visit the Rocket Lab at Boston University. Beaupre, as a member of the Boston University Rocket Propulsion Group, attempted to become the first amateur team to send a rocket into low Earth orbit. Stephen further explained, “Last year we had a local business come into school, FloDesign to talk to us about jet engines and wind turbines. They brought a recent Minnechaug Regional High School graduate, Joe Beaupre, who is also a Boston University engineering student. Joe even interned at SpaceX, a company that builds space rockets, and he told us all about it. After the visit Joe invited students in grades three to five to visit Boston University and tour the Rocket Propulsion Lab where he and other students do research projects.” Stephen admits, “My favorite impact of my project is seeing how everyone really cares about Mars; the students, the teachers, the parents, the entire community and the more people who care, the better for NASA!” Stephen determined from October 2015 to June 2016 over 100 students, teachers and parents donated to Nickels for NASA raising a grand total of $100. He states, “I hope the donation may help fund an extra science experiment on a trip to Mars.” Christine Cooley, Stephen’s mother, added, “We had to roll all the coins and bring the change to the bank before sending a donation by check and this is where it gets interesting. We had a hard time figuring out where to mail the money because NASA does not solicit donations and will not accept a donation for a specific program, only unsolicited donations are accepted. Finally, we decided to send the check to the chief financial officer and see what happened, we were not even sure they would accept the donation or not.” Another big surprise came on Oct. 28 when NASA Administrator Charles Bolden followed up with Stephen and his classmates about his donation, and interest in space, in a 45 minute Skype connection. Stephen stated, “He was a very nice guy who told us to follow our dreams, become a leader in whatever you do.” “The whole project has just been a lot of fun,” Stephen continued. “So many different things have happened because people love space and really care what happens. The Skype phone call with Administrator Bolen was my favorite aspect so far. He gave us such an inspiring talk and really listened to everyone and cared a lot about talking to us.” Stephen continues, “Another surprise came just last week when I received a signed copy of a photo from a real astronaut with a note thanking me for my support for NASA”. The note read “To my Friend, Stephen Cooley. Thank you for supporting NASA and Space Exploration! Come join us at NASA – We’ll explore together! Aim High and Touch the Stars” and was signed by Douglas H. Wheelock, astronaut, Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Stephen’s work has even left an impact on his school community in Springfield. Melissa Earls, Academy Hill head of school, commented that she and the staff are very proud of his endeavor. “We pride ourselves on providing an environment where kids can pursue their passions and challenge them to identify ways they can effect positive change in the world,” she said. “Stephen is doing just that with Nickels for NASA, and it’s a thrill to see.” Stephen admits he may end up becoming an astronaut, after he hopes to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technolgy studying physics or aerospace engineering. In the meantime, he continues to design and build “large mechanical” Legos with a focus on “functionality.” He enjoys applying the laws of science to his designs. “My favorite subject is physics. Right now I am deciphering a book from the U.S. Air Force called, ‘Fundamentals of Astro-Dynamics.’” Christine Cooley concludes “Their generation is all about humans landing on Mars as the next big step in space; ours was the landing on the Moon!” There is certainly no limit in sight for this young boy’s passion and abilities. As Stephen Cooley wrote in his letter to NASA, he plans “to continue to keep his Nickels for NASA campaign going for the rest of the history of the universe” promising “there should be more donations forthcoming in the future,” one caring person at a time. ... See MoreSee Less