The lights started in 1998 at a little rental house on Highland Terrace in the Five Points area of Athens, Georgia. It was a great house but it was 80 years old and its electrical system could only handle about 15,000 lights. We had to turn them off to use the microwave or open the garage door!
In 2001, we moved to the current location and had power capacity to step up the number of lights to over 40,000. Using careful math to distribute the electrical load better each year, we reach a maximum capacity of about 60,000 lights in 2004 including a custom manger scene made entirely from lights and animated patterns in the yard and trees. Traffic was growing and an article in the Athens Banner Herald created a huge number of cars driving by.
We knew that we had to do something positive with the attention so we put a box out front with a sign that said "Please donate a toy to Toys for Tots". The box filled up. Word got out in the neighborhood and in November of 2005 an electrical contractor named Jeremy McClure knocked on my door and said he wanted to help out with the Toys for Tots charity and asked me what I thought would make these lights truly something to see. I jokingly said "another 200 Amp's of power to run 100,000 lights would be nice" and proceeded to ask him about the cost for an extra outlet or two.
Well, early Saturday morning Jeremy showed up with an entire truckload of equipment and his assistant, Christian Thorpe, and the two of them proceeded to spend the entire weekend, standing in the cold and rain, installing an entire custom 400 Amp power supply on my house, complete with is own breaker box and a ten 20 AMP outlets. He doubled the power running to my house and gave me enough power and outlets to light up way more than 100,000 lights! What's more Jeremy refused to take a dime for his services or the equipment and simply said "Merry Christmas. Use this to collect some toys for those kids." Well, that year, 2005 we had the power to put up every light we had - 70,000 of them and collected hundreds and hundreds of toys. Jeremy McClure is a true Christmas hero and words cannot describe our gratitude.
In 2006, armed with the power we needed and thousands more lights found at after-Christmas sales, Bluelights reached our goal of 100,000 lights. We got another article in the paper as well as a listing in the Athens Banner Herald Holiday calendar. We were also featured on an episode of Turner South Storyline. The media attention brought even more visitors, who donated even more toys. It was fantastic. At one point the toys almost filled an entire room of the house!
In 2007, we went even brighter with some energy saving LED's and some new computer controllers for the trees. A listing in the Athens Banner Herald Holiday Calendar kept the traffic and the donations rolling in. The Marine Corp and Toys for Tots honored us by designating us an official donation center. We had another TV appearance, this time on UGA television plus a video pod cast interview with the Grady College New Media Center.
The number of visitors grew in 2008 as did the number of LED's lights relative to the number of incandescent lights. The process for becoming a 501c3 non-profit was started and we became an official Toys for Tots donation center; the only private residence in the United States to be given this distinction. We also got the lights timed to music playing in the yard and constructed a new custom manger scene that I welded and attached lights to create the characters. We also learned a little more about weatherproofing, discovering that those little plug covers used to keep kids from sticking forks into light sockets work great to keep water out of the end of all the light cords.
Thanks to after-Christmas 90% off sales, we've switched more and more lights over to energy efficient LED's since 2009 and here in 2011 we're running 98% LED's so the power usage is down nearly 600% from previous years. The economy has brought donations significantly down as well and higher gas prices have caused a decline in the traffic as well. Unfortunately these same factors have greatly increased the need for donations to Toys for Tots, so we're really encouraging everyone to give however they can. We tell people that five 2-dollar toys will be better than one 10-dollar toy as the need to reach as many kids as possible is the focus in times like these. We're optimistic that things will improve soon and will keep sharing our celebration of Christmas for the many, many people who continue to come by and donate.
We can't express our gratitude to all the visitors and people who donated, the volunteers, plus our new friends at the newspapers, college channels, web channels and TV networks whose media attention brings in more visitors and more donations with every mention. And most of all we could not do this at this level without Jeremy McClure's skill and generosity. Jeremy, we cannot thank you enough. Thanks and Merry Christmas all the year round to you all!