Highwood pumpkin festival raises money for autism

THE+GREAT+WALL%3A+The+21%2C000+pumpkins+carved+during+Pumpkin+Fest+were+displayed+on+racks%2C+some+of+which+soared+beyond+50+feet+in+height.+These+walls+of+pumpkins+stretched+across+the+festival+grounds.+During+the+nightly+lighting+ceremonies%2C+spectators+watched+as+these+walls+were+illuminated+with+carved+faces%2C+shapes+and+symbols.
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Highwood pumpkin festival raises money for autism

THE GREAT WALL: The 21,000 pumpkins carved during Pumpkin Fest were displayed on racks, some of which soared beyond 50 feet in height. These walls of pumpkins stretched across the festival grounds. During the nightly lighting ceremonies, spectators watched as these walls were illuminated with carved faces, shapes and symbols.

THE GREAT WALL: The 21,000 pumpkins carved during Pumpkin Fest were displayed on racks, some of which soared beyond 50 feet in height. These walls of pumpkins stretched across the festival grounds. During the nightly lighting ceremonies, spectators watched as these walls were illuminated with carved faces, shapes and symbols.

Amanda Barr

THE GREAT WALL: The 21,000 pumpkins carved during Pumpkin Fest were displayed on racks, some of which soared beyond 50 feet in height. These walls of pumpkins stretched across the festival grounds. During the nightly lighting ceremonies, spectators watched as these walls were illuminated with carved faces, shapes and symbols.

Amanda Barr

Amanda Barr

THE GREAT WALL: The 21,000 pumpkins carved during Pumpkin Fest were displayed on racks, some of which soared beyond 50 feet in height. These walls of pumpkins stretched across the festival grounds. During the nightly lighting ceremonies, spectators watched as these walls were illuminated with carved faces, shapes and symbols.

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Highwood’s annual Great Pumpkin Festival, which was held from October 17 through October 19, has always been the village’s fall highlight. With kiosks from local restaurants, carnival rides, live music and pumpkin carving, this year’s festival drew an overall attendance of 90,000 people. Although the festival did not set the world record for most lit jack-o’-lanterns, the city of Highwood still made an impact. The Autism Society of Illinois, which partnered with the city of Highwood for this year’s pumpkin festival, was presented with a $52,000 donation, all of which came from the earnings of this year’s festival.

“It was a unified partnership, not only with the City of Highwood and the Autism Society of Illinois, but with everybody in the community,” Director of the Highwood Pumpkin Festival Illyse Strongin-Bombicino said. “If it wasn’t for the community outreach and support, this would have never been as successful as it was.”

The city of Highwood relies on hundreds of volunteers to operate the festival. Volunteers help set up, gut the pumpkins and operate the festival. Local businesses contributed by setting up kiosks devoted to fund-raising for the Autism Society of Illinois and providing volunteers to help out. Local businesses, such as La Casa de Isaac and Robinson’s No. 1 Ribs, contributed to this year’s Pumpkin Fest.
“We had so much of our overhead costs donated because there were so many companies and businesses that support Autism and their mission,” Bombicino said. “We had all of the faculty donated, all of the pumpkins donated, Home Depot donated hundreds of volunteers and wood. It was just an unbelievable outpouring of work.”

This year, Highwood decided to relocate the festival from the east side of the tracks on Sheridan Road, which has been the festival’s home for the past two years, to the other side of the tracks in Everts Park. While this made parking more complicated, since it remained on the east side of the tracks, the relocation was viewed as an improvement to the festival atmosphere.

“Everts Park not only had a larger footprint, but it also had a more open flow,” Bombicino said. “A green park with grass, trees, a gazebo, it was very festival friendly. It was a much more relaxed and open feel.”

The Highwood Pumpkin Festival has partnered with a different charity every year to raise money. This year, with the Autism Society of Illinois, the community chose a charity that focuses their efforts locally, rather than nationally. Residents of Highwood and surrounding areas can expect to see the money raised in this year’s festival used locally to help individuals and families with Autism for training and outreach purposes.

“For outreach, we plan events so that we can take the whole family unit out, make sure that we take care of the individual with autism, mom and dad, and obviously the siblings. We want to make sure that the siblings have a good time and have a night off, along with the parents,” Executive Director of the Autism Society of Illinois Mary Kay Betz said. “The training will help the schools and adult programming know how to help individuals impacted by autism.”
No matter the time of day, there is always some sort of activity in which to take part during the weekend of Pumpkin Fest. With more than 20 live music acts, carnival rides, pumpkin carving, a 5K Pumpkin Run, a petting zoo, pony rides, hay rides, a Giant Pumpkin Maze, pumpkin beer tasting, kids’ crafts, a pet costume contest, the Light Up the Night Parade and nightly pumpkin sky-high wall lighting ceremonies, there are festivities fit for everyone. However, the main attraction is displayed after sunset on the last day of the festival, when all of the 21,000 carved jack-o’-lanterns are placed on shelves reaching heights of nearly 50 feet tall and are illuminated with lights placed inside each pumpkin.

“When we saw the huge lighted wall of pumpkins, it was such an amazing thing to see with the uniqueness of every single one of them,” Betz said.

As the jack-o’-lanterns were being lit, members of the Autism Society of Illinois voiced their goal, which was to have one jack-o’-lantern for every individual impacted with autism in Illinois. The goal of the Autism Society of Illinois is not only to make the lives of those with autism better, but to also make the of the family members of those with autism better.

“Everyone is touched by autism in some way. Whether it’s a friend or someone in the family,” Betz said. “I want to thank the city of Highwood for their kindness and support and willingness to partner with us for such a great event.”

The Highwood Pumpkin Festival plans to continue their partnership with the Autism Society of Illinois.

“Next year, we are going to partner with Autism Society of Illinois because they were such a phenomenal partner and the festival ran so smoothly because of the partnership,” Strongin-Bombicino said. “It was a unified partnership, not only with the City of Highwood and the Autism Society of Illinois, but with everybody in the community.”

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