WELLS — Stan and Melissa Norton make wishes come true.
If you’ve driven by their house at 213 Canterbury Road, then you’ve seen for yourself. That’s the home of Norton Lights, a local holiday attraction that is not just an annual tradition for so many people who love seeing Christmas decorations – it’s also a big fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Maine.
Every year, the Nortons bedeck their front yard with dazzling and festive Christmas lights, wrapping them around trees and hanging them from displays. The most important adornment, however, is a box marked “Make-A-Wish” that stands at the foot of their driveway. It is into that box that people can drop donations to Make-A-Wish Maine, the Scarborough-based foundation that grants wishes to children who are battling life-threatening illnesses.
And into that box donations have dropped – to the tune of approximately $72,000 during the fundraiser’s first nine years, to be exact. Each of those nine years has resulted in a wish granted to a child from the foundation.
“Fingers crossed, we’ll be able to raise enough money this year to grant our 10th wish,” Stan said during a recent interview.
The Nortons have been elaborately decorating their home every Christmas since 2006. They began presenting their annual light show – which, by the way, is set to music at 88.9 on your car’s FM dial – as a way to raise funds for Make-A-Wish Maine in 2009. The family chose Make-A-Wish because Stan had memorable experiences with the Make-A-Wish Foundation while serving in the United States military. In those cases, the foundation had granted wishes to children who wanted to spend time with military personnel.
“It just got me thinking about Christmastime, which is all about wishes,” Stan said, describing the moment when Norton Lights and Make-A-Wish Maine clicked. “It was just the right fit.”
Back in 2009, the foundation needed $6,000 to grant a child a wish, according to the Nortons. That year, they fell short of that amount but were still able to ensure a granted wish, thanks to the staff members in Scarborough, who were so touched by the family’s gesture that they pitched in enough funds to cross that six-thousand-dollar finish line.
And the following year? Not a problem. Norton Lights raised $11,000 for the cause, almost enough for two wishes.
Every night this time of the year, Stan goes out, retrieves donations from the cash box, heads back inside, counts the amount, and enters it onto a spreadsheet. He and Melissa keep track of every dollar that is donated and deposit it into an account. They write a single check and present it to Make-A-Wish Maine at the end of every Christmas season.
“They have been incredible to us the last 10 years,” Melissa said of Make-A-Wish. “They’re outstanding people. They’re truly angels, and it’s been an honor and a pleasure to work with them and with the families. It’s truly humbling and inspiring to work with them.”
The feeling is certainly mutual. Rebekah Roy, the marketing manager of Make-A-Wish Maine, offered high praise and gratitude for the Norton family, noting that they “devote countless hours and work tirelessly” on their annual light show.
“The Norton family represents the very best in a community and what it means to give back,” Roy wrote in an email.
According to the Nortons, they have raised enough money to grant children’s wishes to go to Disney World and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Florida, to take a Disney cruise, and to travel to Hawaii. On a wall in their home, they have pictures of each child enjoying their granted wish – gifts to them from Make-A-Wish Maine.
“Wishes give families new strength and hope,” Melissa said.
Stan is now retired from the military and is employed as a security manager at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Melissa is the pediatric program coordinator at the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at the Maine Medical Center in Portland. They have two college-aged sons, Reed and Ryan, both of whom have always helped them set up Norton Lights.
That’s quite a task. The Nortons’ sons are not the only ones who help set up the display. Sometimes their friends help, too. Even the community pitches in – local Girl Scout troops and sports teams often volunteer for the effort, and high school students sometimes do their part to fulfill their requirements for service hours.
“We’ve had so much help,” Melissa said.
Stan said he starts decorating the yard as early as October.
“Once Halloween is done, I need just about every weekend in November to get the yard set up and get everything plugged in,” he said.
The Nortons start presenting their light show during the weekend after Thanksgiving and offer it nightly through Christmas. The shows – which last around eight-and-a-half minutes – are offered from 5 to 9 p.m. on Sundays through Thursdays and from 5 to 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
“Seven days a week, the show is running,” Stan said. “I’m out there until nine, 10 o’clock each night.”
That makes for long days for Stan, who rises early each morning to get to the shipyard in time for work. Sure, it can be tiring work – but the abundance of heartwarming stories inspired by Norton Lights makes it all worth it.
One night, bone-tired, Stan was out there, directing traffic and making sure each show went smoothly. One car stopped, and a little girl stepped out of it and approached him. Stan did what he does for all who stop by Norton Lights – he offered her a candy cane. She accepted the treat and asked for a hug too. Stan obliged. The girl then told him that she was a Make-A-Wish recipient. She told him that what he and his family were doing was amazing. She thanked him.
“She was nine or 10,” Stan said. “It’s that kind of stuff that lets me know I’m doing the right thing.”
Melissa recalled that one woman visited Norton Lights every night with her mother. Each night the daughter would drop a donation into the Make-A-Wish bucket. Stan told her she didn’t have to donate money every night she and her mother visited. The daughter replied that they liked to donate each night. “My mother is going blind,” the daughter said, “and this is the only thing she can see.”
“There are countless stories that recharge our batteries,” Melissa said.
How many people drive out to Canterbury Road to see the Norton Lights show each holiday season? The Nortons can’t be sure, but they have one method of estimating: they count how many candy canes they hand out to visitors.
“We average between 5,000 and 6,000 candy canes that we hand out every year,” Melissa said.
And that’s only counting those who say yes to those candy canes. Some people pass.
Both Nortons expressed appreciation to their neighbors, who do not mind the heavy traffic on their road each year and even go so far as to help direct it.
“We could not do this without the amazing neighbors that we have,” Melissa said. “They are outstanding. We have a lot of traffic coming through, and without the support of our neighbors we just couldn’t do it. We’re appreciative that they’re so patient.”
“We have amazing neighbors,” he said. “We wouldn’t have been able to get this far without their help.”
The local police and fire departments help too, the Nortons added.
Stan and Melissa Norton are both Wells natives and have been together since they were in the eighth grade. In the seventh grade, Stan told Melissa that he was going to marry her.
The couple clearly loves Christmas. When this writer entered their home, “Elf,” the Will Ferrell holiday comedy, was playing on their television. They have themed Christmas trees throughout their home. And, of course, there is that exhilarating display of lights and music in their front yard – a display that people from all over New England come to see.
Then there’s the most important part: the money for Make-A-Wish Maine that the family is able to donate, thanks to the generosity of the thousand of people who visit Norton Lights every holiday season.
Norton Lights embodies Stan and Melissa’s belief that it is important to give back to one’s community.
“The big part for me, as a mother, is teaching my children to give back and to know that there are people who are really struggling and to reach out and help them,” Melissa said.
“It’s the time of year to give back to others,” Stan said. “It’s about being there for other people when they need it.”
Especially when those people are suffering children, and what they need is a granted wish.