DECATUR — Drake Wentworth beamed as he placed his recently finished lantern among rows of others sitting on the Fairview Park grass. It sported his initials, along with a lightning bolt, because they're "cool and scary."
Wednesday was the first time that Drake, 5, and his family participated in the Decatur Park District's annual Lantern Parade. Although he had never been to one before, Drake knew exactly what he was looking forward to as the night went on.
"I'm excited to light (the lantern) up inside," he said.
Ever since it was first held 81 years ago, the Lantern Parade has become a popular summertime staple for both children and adults to enjoy. This year's event also featured a performance by the Greater Decatur Youth Band, a magic act by The Amazing Dudley and a visit from the Scovill Mobile Zoo.
As someone who has been involved with the park district's summer program for over 30 years, Alvin Jackson has witnessed firsthand how much the program has changed over the years.
"Kids don't really play outside anymore," Jackson, 55, said. He currently serves intermittently as a park leader, or "yellow hat" due to the light yellow caps all park leaders wear.
Jackson said that there aren't as many kids joining the summer program activities like they used to, and said that the rise of technology use could be the cause. He feels that the program could be in jeopardy if the number of participants continues to drop.
"Hopefully they'll keep this going," he said. "Because it's been looking kind of scary at times."
According to summer program supervisor Mary Jane Hayes, about 1,000 children participated in the program's activities throughout the summer. That not only included simply going to one of the parks, but also being a part of the free summer lunch program.
"These days, a lot of parents are busy or are single parents," Hayes said. "It's important to provide these kinds of activities because it allows those parents to feel comfortable with letting their children go to the park while they're away."
Keeping the Lantern Parade's crowd of over 250 people in mind, Hayes believes that the program should be in good standing for the near future.
"As long as we have turnouts like this, we're going to keep this going for so many years to come," she said.
Jackson, who attended the parade with his two grandsons, hopes that more people consider joining the program as park leaders. He believes that all yellow hats have a unique opportunity to make a positive impact in the lives of many children.
"If you come from a community that you know is trying to get better, be a part of that change," Jackson said. "Don't just talk about it, be about it."
Park leaders Treylon Fuller and James Woodland, both age 20, have the same mindset. Fuller and Woodland have fond memories of their time with the program as kids, and are working to give today's youth the same experiences.
"We're trying to give these kids something to do by keeping them in the parks," Woodland said. "It's a way to get kids back to being kids."