Better to Light Up 1 Town Cheshire group moving beyond tragedy

CHESHIRE Organizers of Cheshire Lights of Hope say they will never forget the 2007 home invasion that claimed the lives of Dr. William Petit's wife and two daughters, but the annual fundraiser has become more about this town's resiliency.

That could be seen outside Cheshire High School as volunteers sold luminarias to residents waiting in their cars, and it could be witnessed in the faces of children as they carefully placed small white bags with votive candles along Route 10 on Saturday afternoon.

At 4 p.m., the Mile of Hope 2,000 luminarias lining Route 10 lit up. At about 5, 50,000 luminaries on 202 streets sparked to life across town.

The event is not here to remind residents of the tragedy, said Don Walsh, co-organizer.

"We are here to show the resiliency of Cheshire and how special this town is by helping neighbors and giving back to the community," said Walsh.

Lights of Hope began on Jenifer and Don Walsh's street in 2005.

The first year they lit up Contour Drive, raising money for the American Cancer Society. More streets joined the second year, and that raised money for the Connecticut Chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society. Walsh's wife, Jenifer, has MS.

When tragedy struck the Petit family, the Walshes and neighbors wanted to do something in the family's honor and to bring the community together, he said.

"It just blew up that first year," Walsh said.

The townwide event was planned for December 2007, but a snowstorm delayed it until January 2008. That year, nearly 140,000 luminaries were lit.

It was meant for healing. On July 23, 2007, two men, Joshua Komisarjevsky and accomplice Steven Hayes, killed Jennifer Hawke-Petit, 17-year-old Hayley and 11-year-old Michaela inside their suburban home. William Petit was badly beatened, but survived.

The two men now are on death row after having been convicted of the murders.

Proceeds went to Hayley's Hope and Michaela's Miracle Multiple Sclerosis Memorial Fund. Hawke-Petit also was afflicted with MS.

After the first townwide event, no one wanted to stop doing this, Walsh said.

The group in 2007 formed a nonprofit organization, and many following the first event wanted to change the direction to focus on the town and how to help neighbors, he said.

The beneficiaries of the proceeds also expanded.

To date, it has given more than $350,000, Walsh said.

This year, the nonprofit expected to raise $50,000, he said.

Proceeds this year benefit the Cheshire Community Food Pantry, Cheshire Youth & Social Services, the Petit Family Foundation and the Cheshire Lights of Hope Scholarship Fund.

Each organization received a check for $11,000 at the 2012 Light the Night Rally shortly after 2 p.m. at the high school. Michael Thomas, a 2012 Cheshire High graduate who is attending Fairfield University, received a $2,500 scholarship.

Petit, who has since remarried, accepted the check for the foundation. He set up the charity in memory of his family. It has raised money to help people with chronic illness, victims of violence and students who are heading off to college.

"We are overwhelmed with your generosity and support," said Petit.

At the rally, a new business, Denali, which opened Saturday, offered 10 percent off coupons to be honored through Nov. 18. Walsh said customers will get 10 percent off merchandise, and Denali will give 10 percent of what each person spends to Lights of Hope.

The nonprofit created the Cheshire Luminary Award, too. It is given to a person or organization showing commitment to volunteer work that helps Cheshire.

St. Bridget's Parish and School was this year's recipient.

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