Live United: The start of a new Gift of Lights community tradition

Published 8:09 pm Friday, December 4, 2020

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Live United by Erin Haag


I had a lovely conversation this week with a reader. He called this week wondering how the Veterans United program was going. I shared with him that we’ve individually helped fiv veeterans since we started the program in May. That’s not a lot, in the grand scheme of things, but I reminded him of my motto when it comes to this program. “If we build it, they will come.”

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After all, the gentleman who reached out to us recently about help accessing his unemployment benefits — it’s a big deal to him. Each week, he’ll be sitting down with a team member or volunteer to access his benefits. One day, he might be talking to his buddy, and they might have a problem, and he’ll know to say, “hey, United Way helped me. Why don’t you give them a call?”

Erin Haag

Now, we know we’ve served many more veterans through our pop-up pantries, and even suspect a few have gotten coats from us. It’s difficult to track specific numbers though, because those programs are no questions asked. There’s always more to do though. Since our webpage was updated, I haven’t had a chance to build the Veterans United page. I hope to create videos and brochures and — the list goes on. For all of the programs really.

As my gentleman reader and I chatted, we found some connections we had. He shared with me that he felt strongly about traditions, and that many of the city’s, and even United Way’s traditions have been lost throughout the years. I’m not a native Albert Lean, but I feel the same way about traditions. In my marriage, the traditions we’ve created together are one of my top things I’m grateful for — from our favorite pew at church, to cutting down a tree at The Evergreens and ice cream at Eaton’s after a day of fishing.

I can’t bring back the same traditions, but I’m hoping to create new ones. Recently, a local businessman shared how he was nostalgic for the Christmas light displays around town, and he missed the local contest that happened once upon a time. He felt that we should give the community an incentive to decorate, to take joy and to celebrate.

Drumroll, please. Perhaps you’ve already heard on the radio, but we are hosting the first annual Gift of Lights contest. With over $1,750 in prizes, businesses and residents alike will have a chance to show off their best holiday lights. Entry forms are due on Dec. 11, with a fee of $15 for residents and $25 for businesses. The rules, categories and  entry forms are available online at or you can call our office for a hard copy. I’m certain that next week there will be some local places you can stop by to pick up a form, I just don’t know where yet. If you have questions or need help getting a form, please call our office at 507-373-8670.

We have categories of “Best of County” for those who live outside Albert Lea limits, with four quadrants divided by I-90 and I-35; “Best of Albert Lea”; and then the fun ones. A Whoville Christmas category is for the fun-loving, over the top, whimsical, Dr. Suess house. We just don’t want to see that green guy sneaking around. Charlie Brown Christmas is sure to be a favorite — decorate your barn, the dog house, the boat, anything but your house!

Christmas Comedy is to take inspiration from your favorite funny Christmas movie. I’m wondering who’s going to do the leg lamp in the window and who’s going to stage a “Home Alone” scene in their yard. 

I have big dreams for this annual event. Next year, with the proper amount of planning and my crackerjack team, we’ll work to expand the options. I hope that this will become a signature event, the United Way Gift of Lights, a tradition that families embrace, celebrating the joy of holiday lights, becoming aware of all the programs we support and more.

I hope you’ll join me this holiday season in creating a new tradition we can look forward to every year. Isn’t 2020 the best year to do so?

Erin Haag is the executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County.