Three-year-old Olivia Ward’s eyes widened with wonder as the festive glow of lights switched on during the 16th annual Happy Holidaze lighting event at the David Traylor Zoo of Emporia Tuesday evening.

Little Olivia, along with parents Courtney and Willie Ward of Emporia, had the honor of flipping the switch this year.

“It was a fantastic experience,” Courtney Ward said. “We spend a lot of Saturdays up at the zoo, so to be able to participate was very cool.”

Olivia knew ahead of time about the honor, Ward said, but when it came time to actually flip the switch things got a little confusing. Still, it was a rewarding experience for the whole family.

“She’s at the really fun age — 3 — where all this Christmas magic brings her awe and joy,” she said. “Hopefully this becomes a memory for her where she can look back and say, ‘Yeah, I got to do that at the zoo.’”

The annual lighting event is a way for the zoo staff to give back to the community each year, said zoo director Lisa Keith. With carolers, games and more, she said it’s always a fun event.

And the 2021 event was no different.

“We couldn’t have asked for a better day — the weather is amazing. It’s just absolutely fabulous,” Keith said. “The lights are beautiful. We’re so lucky to have a horticulture crew that works to hard to put this together for us, so big thanks to them.”

The crew — John Welsh, Lori Edie, Josh Nelson and Siara Chestnut — started working on the set-up around Nov. 1 and finished Tuesday. There’s about 20,150 feet of lights to string, with 65% of them being LED bulbs.

Keith was also excited to welcome some special guests to the zoo this year as members of the Emporia Police Department Benefit Association collected gifts for its annual toy drive at the entrance.

“To partner with the Emporia Police Department Benefit Association has been an honor,” Keith said. “I think it’s something that fits very well with our Happy Holidaze event and I hope it continues for many years to come.”

EPD Records Tech Brittany Jones said she was pleased with the response to the drive Tuesday evening.

“We were kind of nervous what our turnout was going to look like, but it’s proving to be what I hope is a long partnership,” she said.

With a number of EPD staff — both officers and civilian — helping out during the event, Jones said it was the perfect spot to be able to spread out and visit with the public.

“We’re able to help in different areas and we think it’s very important to be active and involved in the community,” she said. “We’re very happy to be able to help with this event, because the zoo already does an awesome job with it. To be able to add to it, it just feels like a natural fit.”

Gifts collected Tuesday will be distributed to St. Francis Ministries and TFI Family Services. Jones said supporting those agencies during the holidays is an important job and one that has new meaning for her this year.

“So many of those kids are going through a rough time in their life and Christmas is supposed to be a happy moment, for more reason than one,” she said. “We want to be able to help and bring some holiday cheer this year and help the foster parents that are opening up their homes. It’s our way to give back a little because we love our community and we love the people in it.”

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