In just a few weeks’ time, the annual New Paltz Halloween parade will transform this community into a destination for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people. However, an aspect of that tradition which is very important to the youngest participants — full-size Hershey’s bars, handed out to every child who looks to be under 13 years of age — may not be able to continue, and organizers are looking to community members for help.
Not everyone knows that the popular parade is organized by members of the local Lions Club, an organization which now has only about half-a-dozen members. Members of other organizations — particularly the town police and village fire departments — play critical roles, but there’s a reason why the parade is led by someone in a lion suit. The New Paltz Lions have been in existence since 1955, and sometime in the 1960s — record-keeping was a bit spotty back then — Bill Heidgerd took the first steps toward what was to become the parade which now packs Main Street every October 31 with people in all manner of amazing outfits.
Carol Smith is the club’s longest-serving member at 25 years, and as such is also the local historian. Her account is that Heidgerd, looking to find something for schoolchildren to do on Halloween, led them down the sidewalks of Main Street from what was then the high school at Manheim Boulevard to the corner of Chestnut Street. There was no stopping along the way for candy, Smith says, but “they must have enjoyed it. Last year, I think we had 1,200 kids.”
Much of today’s parade is contributed to by members of the community. Police overtime costs are donated rather than charged to organizers, and the main village fire house is opened to the teeming masses that descend upon New Paltz for the event. Apples handed out freely are contributed by the owners of all seven local orchards. Last year’s chocolate bill, nearly $700, was supported in part by donations from community members, but also from the pockets of members in a club which has accidentally become exclusive. Along with Smith, the club is comprised of Florence “Fluffy” Butler, Elinor Descovich, Constance Rubow and Roy Williams.
It’s true that membership in service organizations is in decline generally. Smith recalls that, when she joined the Lions, the club was 20 members strong. “Young parents have a lot to do, with all their kids’ activities,” she said; many of those with time for their weekly meetings are retirees. Club members gather every first and third Wednesday morning, 8 a.m. sharp at the Plaza Diner in New Paltz; meeting over a meal is a Lion’s tradition. They’ve tweaked the time over the years to accommodate the needs of members, but it’s been Wednesday as long as anyone can remember.
Butler called the parade “the main fun thing we do,” and it’s clear from the glowing faces around the diner table that all the members truly enjoy helping put together the centerpiece of the New Paltz Halloween experience. Lions Club International is at its core a service organization, however, and the New Paltz chapter is no different.
All Lions chapters are focused on serving the local community, with some thematic guidance. Vision issues are central — the eyeglass-collection bins is one sign of that focus — and the emphasis right now is on diabetes, one of the most widespread causes of blindness. Locally, members use an auto-refractor to provide vision screening, often to children, and identify those who might need further testing. An entire classroom can be screened in less than an hour, and school nurses sometimes flag particular students to be tested if they suspect a vision problem. Some 25% of those tested are referred for more in-depth screening.
New Paltz Lions have brought information on both vision and hearing loss to the residents of Woodland Pond; who have learned about not only diabetic retinopathy, but also cataracts and macular degeneration. Saving the senses is an enduring Lions Club theme, but local members certainly enjoy bringing holiday flair to the help they provide. In addition to the Halloween parade, they decorate a holiday tree (donated from Wallkill View Farm) at Elting Memorial Library.
Those candy bars, though, are a big deal. Big enough that sometimes, when club members make a judgment call that a particular youngster is probably too old to be eligible, some parents might grumble about the injustice rather than calculate how much 1,000 chocolate bars might cost. “We’ve been asked why we don’t just give out smaller ones,” said Rubow, “but it wouldn’t be the same.” Anyone who has watched the young eyes light up when they receive that sizable chunk of chocolate is likely to agree.
Halloween will come, whether or not the parade ends in a spectacular Hershey’s giveaway. However, residents interested in supporting this effort are invited to call Rubow at her place of business, New Paltz Eye Care, at 255-8370. New Paltzians curious about the Lions mission generally might be inclined to stop by the Plaza Diner some Wednesday morning, and look for the table of people wearing the signature golden Lions Club vest.