First Star I See Tonight…
Trail of Lights Foundation STARS program is lighting up the holidays for folks young and old. For 18 nonprofit groups across central Austin, this season will be brighter thanks to the generosity of numerous local businesses.
Words by Jess Hagemann Photos by Dear Wesleyann Photography
Every year since 2012, when the Trail of Lights Foundation was established, the STARS Program has made it possible for 501(c)3s whose services specifically benefit Austin to attend a special VIP ‘pre-party’ at the fan-favorite Trail of Lights. Between December 4-6, 2016, up to 100 members, stakeholders, and/or guests of each nonprofit selected for STARS (that’s up to 1800 people total!) will receive transportation to and from Zilker Park, cocoa and cookies in the park, and a guided tour of the lighted Trail culminating in a special audience with Santa Claus!
2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the lighting of the Zilker Tree, and almost as many years for the Trail of Lights. According to Leah Davies, president of the Trail of Lights Foundation, the Foundation came into being four years ago, once the city of Austin decided it no longer had the funds to support the annual event. The Foundation “makes sure the Trail is sustainable for an infinite amount of time,” says Leah, “because the Trail of Lights is a uniquely Austin event that really does try to offer something for everyone.” The STARS Program is just one more initiative meant to keep the Trail inclusive of all.
Three of the east Austin nonprofits selected as this year’s STARS include Creative Action, Community First! Village, and the Rise School.
Creative Action’s mission is to “spark and support the academic, social, and emotional development of young people” by inspiring them to be “creative artists, courageous allies, critical thinkers, and confident leaders.” Through innovative in-classroom and after-school programming, Creative Action espouses such important messages as anti-bullying and an active transformation of the way kids learn. Their approach in partnering with school faculty and staff has even improved teacher retention!
Community First! Village provides permanent, sustainable housing for formerly homeless individuals. Located in far east Austin, they emphasize economic viability and mental health support in addition to ensuring that “everyone sleeps inside.” Because Community First! caters to an adult population, STARS is excited to create new adult-friendly offerings this year that will appeal to the group’s participants. While STARS programming has been historically youth-based, they are always on the lookout for groups who serve adults, especially the elderly and veterans.
The Rise School of Austin on Manor Road is dedicated to hands-on education for all kids. Their premier model places students with and without disabilities in the same setting, where “individualized learning techniques enable every child to achieve their maximum potential.” Since 2003, the Rise School of Austin has proven that the “short and long-term benefits of an integrated environment are equally great for children with developmental disabilities and those without.”
Although the 2016 STARS have already been selected, the Trail of Lights Foundation encourages any group who qualifies to apply for the 2017 season. The public application becomes available the summer before the event. Foundation would also like to thank the partners who make the STARS program possible, including Vista Equity Partners, Jean-Marc Fray Antiques, Kendra Scott, and Katrine and Bill Formby.
Did You Know?
From December 10-16, the Trail of Lights is free for anyone to attend. From December 17-23, there is a small gate fee of $3 per person for ages 12+ to support the Foundation’s operations. Trail general admission hours are nightly from 7pm to 10pm.
ZiP Fast Pass admission is available and allows priority entry to the Trail at 6pm nightly, one hour before the public.