Since 1985, students at Wheeling Park High School have worked in partnership with employees at Wheeling's nationally-renowned Oglebay Park to create dozens of dynamic lighted displays. Displays constructed by students for the park's Winter Festival of Lights – including the Candy Cane Wreath, The Twelve Days of Christmas and Willard the Snowman – help to attract more than one million visitors to Wheeling each Holiday Season. The displays span more than 300 acres over a six-mile drive through the scenic resort.
"This service-learning project has been a win-win for everyone involved," explained State Superintendent Dr. Henry Marockie, who helped to initiate the partnership project when he was superintendent of Ohio County Schools. "Students learn how to apply what they learn from textbooks and in class to a real-world project. While working as part of a team of draftsmen, electricians, painters, artists, carpenters, welders, graphic designers and machinists to construct the displays, students also learn vital workplace skills such as project scheduling, time management and team dynamics."
According to Randy Worls, chief executive officer of the Oglebay Foundation, the project began in 1985 as an effort to entice more visitors to visit Oglebay during its off season.
"When we first mentioned the concept to Dr. Marockie, who was the local superintendent at that time, he asked, ‘How can we get our students involved? How can we help?' He recognized the opportunity for students to be involved in a wonderful service-learning project. This partnership has produced great dividends for students and the community," Worls said.
"The Winter Festival of Lights now pumps about $20 million into the area economy each year," Worls continued. "We base these figures on actual retail sales tax figures, not some convoluted multiplication formula. Believe it or not, one local ice cream store now sells more ice cream in December than it does in August because of this project."
George Krelis, principal at Wheeling Park High School, said that the project has made a significant difference in students' lives – a difference that can't always be measured in dollars and cents.
"Students enjoy watching the look of wonderment on the faces of young children who see these wonderful displays, and students gain tremendous satisfaction in seeing the difference the light show has had on the local economy," the principal explained. "Students proudly sign their names inside electrical cabinets and on other parts of the displays they help to build. We even had a couple of former students get married under a display they had helped to build a couple of years earlier."
Krelis said that about 1,500 students have worked on the displays since the project's inception in 1985. Each year, 80-100 students enthusiastically commit an estimated 10,000 hours – class time and volunteer time – to making the project a success.
"Classes become ‘real' for students who participate in this project, and students have used the skills they learned in this project to find employment," Krelis continued. "Numerous students have even started their own small businesses based on the skills they learned while working on the project. Service-learning is certainly making a difference in our community and in the ability of our students to be gainfully employed."
Shaun Sunderhaus, a senior electronics technology student at Wheeling Park High School, believes that the project has helped him to prepare for the world of work.
"Working on the Festival of Lights has allowed me to apply my skills to real-life situations," he said. "I was able to see projects through from an idea to design, construction, troubleshooting and implementation. The challenge was big, and I grew because of it."