December 21, 2013 9:03:47 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Columbus, Mobile, Amory, Caledonia, Huntsville, Starkville ... " Doris Brasher read down the list in a small, spiral notebook she keeps in the gingerbread house that serves as a welcome station for Christmas at the Park in Fayette, Ala. "There's Wyoming, Alaska, Germany and Beijing, China," she went on.
Doris and her husband, John, like to know where visitors to the annual Christmas display hail from. They ask every driver who stops to pay the $1 per car to enter Guthrie Smith Park's twinkling wonderland. Last year, there were about 14,000 vehicles.
Doris, 72, and John, 76, are veterans when it comes to Christmas spirit. Inspired years ago by light displays at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Ga., the couple began decorating outdoors at their home and soon had a yearly parade of sightseers. After a leg injury hampered John's mobility, the couple donated their decorations to the town, partnered with the City of Fayette and the Park and Recreation Department, and began voluntarily overseeing Christmas at the Park eight years ago. It has grown every year.
"We love Christmas, and this is very meaningful to us," explained Doris, dressed in a navy blue sweatshirt embroidered with "Jesus is the Reason for the Season."
Night after night, from Thanksgiving through New Year's Eve, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., cars stream under the long archway of lights that begins a 1-mile loop featuring 39 animated LED scenes, nine wooden vignettes, a Santa house and a nativity scene made with mannequins beautifully outfitted by the Fayette Garden Club.
Proceeds are channeled back into expanding the display, so the month-long event adds scenes every year and its acclaim spreads. About 65 individuals have volunteered to man the drive-through this year.
"We just love John and Doris -- they have been a blessing to our community," said Fayette Mayor Ray Nelson. "This has turned into one of the town's main events. It's amazing the number of people that visit and come get in the Christmas spirit."
The hard work is worth it to the Brashers, who do not take a penny for their effort.
"You can't do too much for Jesus," said John succinctly.
Eager faces passing by sights like the 35-foot tree of lights, a 16-foot "Old Glory" with flashing red, white and blue lights and exploding fireworks and a 10-by-8-foot cake that spells "Happy Birthday Jesus" reflect the joy of the season. What they don't see are the hundreds of hours invested in bringing these scenes to life, or the lifeline they represent to one group of women in particular.
No smoking, no cursing
Since 2009, the Brashers have utilized female inmates from the Fayette County Jail to help set up Christmas at the Park. The women, two each day, also assist the couple with beautification projects in Fayette throughout the year.
"Since we started, we've had 39 girls work with us, and it's a fact that only six have ended up back in jail," said Doris with brisk energy as she bustled through a compact portable building on the park's outskirts. Equipped inside with donated plastic table and chairs, a stove and refrigerator, it's where she cooks meals for the girls she and John pick up at 7:30 a.m. at the jail and take back about 5 p.m. With the help of donations, the couple also outfits the women with work shoes and clothing when needed.
The Brasher's rules are simple: No smoking, no cursing, prayer before every meal and a devotional every day. If they can't abide by those rules, they need to exit the program, said Doris, describing herself as "stern, but loving."
"We're trying to teach them right from wrong and that when they get out of jail we want them to do well," she went on. "We've been doing this a long time, and it's very special to me and my husband." It is special to the inmates as well.
An inmate's perspective
Melissa Reynolds has been incarcerated for 21 months. Ironically, it is in prison that she has learned to love herself. The Brashers, she said, helped convince her she is worth loving.
"These people took me in and trusted me and acted like I am somebody," said the 41-year-old who helped set up her second Christmas at the Park this past fall. Seeing the park ready for visitors after three months of preparation was emotional for Reynolds.
"For the first time in my life I had accomplished and completed something; it showed me how much hard work pays off," she said. "When I got to see it all lit up, I was proud of myself."
John -- part humorist, part perfectionist -- reminds the girls to think before making decisions they might later regret.
"He tells us we could have a better life without drugs," explained Reynolds. "Mrs. Brasher teaches us about Jesus and second chances. She makes sure we have clothes to wear and food to eat and gives advice. I thank God I met them."
The inmate also praised Fayette County Sheriff Rodney Ingle for allowing the women a chance to better themselves through the program, and for his encouragement to take responsibility for their pasts and futures.
Ingle credits Doris and John. "They do way more than the Christmas lights ... not only do they give back to the community, but once (the inmates) get out and do something they have a sense of pride about it, a sense of accomplishment. It gives them the chance to prove themselves."
Better the second time around
Former inmate Tara Porter was addicted to drugs for 13 years and, for a while, life was a downward spiral. That was before she ended up in the Fayette County Jail and met the Brashers in 2009. She is now 27, free and making a home with her three children. She calls Doris and John Maw Maw and Paw Paw.
"They're just like my own grandparents," she said in a phone interview. "They taught me so much about landscaping, planting, things I can use for me and the kids now; they taught us about what we need to go through life, to be better people." Pride was audible as she continued, "I was really bad on drugs ... and now I work, I have a car, I have an apartment, I pay my bills."
The Brashers stay in touch with the women they have worked with.
"We keep up with these girls faithfully; they're very precious to us." said Doris. Seeing a "graduate" turning her life around is a mountaintop experience. "It makes you feel real good," Doris admitted, swiftly wiping a tear from her cheek.
The couple plan to keep it up for as many years as they can.
"If we can change one or two of these girls, it's worth it," said John. "I hope they get blessings out of it, because we get blessed every day."
One of the best rewards is when a former inmate tours the park display as a visitor, with her family.
About 20 have already come through this year, by Doris' estimate. Reynolds looks forward to the day she'll be one of them.
"I can't wait to get out so I can be a volunteer," she said, smiling. "I want to see the kids' faces at night."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.