PAINCOURTVILLE, LA — Ray Daigle turned on his Christmas lights Friday night for the first time this season, 1.3 million lights dancing to more than 20 songs. But to him, the most important pieces of the display are the handful of cardboard boxes from Toys for Tots.
Daigle first built a display in his yard in 2001. He said he became depressed after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and needed a hobby to renew his spirit. He started with 35,000 lights, but added as many as two million before settling on his current number. After a couple of seasons, he recognized that the popularity of his yard to be put to a worthy cause.
"I felt a need for the children of Assumption Parish," he said, "because we all have to remember: our children are our future."
Thousands of cars navigate the Daigles' driveway to see the display, and Daigle puts on a Santa suit twice a week to talk to the children. Drivers can also tune in to a special radio station to hear the music in time with the lights.
But none of that explained why more than 100 cars lined up at Assumption High School Friday evening.
"A couple years back," said Tommy Meyer, "I was looking for a way to honor my little brother, Ben Meyer, who I lost in a car accident many years back. And one of Ben's passions was children."
So Meyer organized a caravan to go to the Daigles' house, with each person bringing at least one toy to donate.
"It's like a magical land," Libby Porto exclaimed as she waited with her family before the caravan departed. "They got lights everywhere. And if you think about it, you're really doing a good deed if you give a toy, any kind of toy."
"Too many times," Meyer said, "we think today is Black Friday and a way to go out and give gifts for our own kids, our kids that maybe already have the gifts that they don't need."
Toward the end of opening night, Daigle said people brought more than 2,000 toys, and he expects to collect up to 10,000 this year.
Having a big event like this allows all the toys "to be distributed in Assumption Parish," said Phillip August, the local coordinator for Toys for Tots. "Everything collected and donated in Assumption Parish will remain in Assumption parish."
"There's almost no one is Assumption Parish, no child is going to wake up without a toy," Meyer said. "It's very exciting."
Daigle said the display took about six weeks to build, with help from his grandchildren and two electricians. He will leave it all up through January 3rd, and people can visit any day of the week. A donation to Toys for Tots is not required, but encouraged.
"Assumption Parish is a small parish, but a very generous parish," August said.