Above: Steve Smith, Beth Rhinehart and Jerry Caldwell
by Scott Robertson
The COVID crisis will not stop schoolchildren in Bristol and eastern Sullivan County from having a public celebration of Christmas.
When Bristol Chamber of Commerce leaders realized there would be no safe way to conduct a Christmas Parade this year, they rejected the notion that the children who love attending the parade every year would be left without a free civic celebration.
“We wouldn’t accept that,” says Beth Rhinehart, president and CEO of the Chamber. “We came up with Speedway in Lights and said, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s a ready-made holiday experience right here in our own back yard.”
The Chamber asked Jerry Caldwell, Bristol Motor Speedway general manager and vice president if the speedway would be willing to provide vouchers for families of schoolchildren so they could still have a free holiday celebration.
Caldwell agreed, provided doing so would not harm Speedway Children’s Charities, which benefits from the proceeds from Speedway in Lights. “Speedway in Lights is for this community,” Caldwell says. “It’s a wonderful event that raises money for our kids in our community. This is a natural extension of that.”
After Chamber staffers spoke with the school systems serving Bristol, Tenn., Bristol, Va, and the eastern zone of Sullivan County, they knew there would be around 4,000 vouchers that would need to be paid for.
Finding a sponsor to make sure the charities that were already a part of the event didn’t suffer from a potential decline in revenue was easy. “That’s where Food City stepped in,” Rhinehart says.
When Rhinehart called Food City, she found an eager partner. The grocery store chain immediately wanted in. “Well, it’s a real opportunity to work with our friends at Bristol Motor Speedway, but more importantly, to be able to give an opportunity to a lot of families that may or may not have been able to come to Speedway in Lights before,” says Steve Smith, Food City president and CEO. “This is a great thing to do in lieu of the Bristol parade. I know from having taken my own kids to the parade that it’s a great way to start the holiday season. Hopefully this will be a good alternative so families can do that in the safety of their own cars.
“This has been a tough time for everybody, whether it’s virtual learning or just doing the things it takes to stay safe and keep people healthy, we’ve all been challenged this year,” Smith says. “This represents a chance to call an audible and do something a little bit different to help offset that, and we’re just proud to be a part of it.”
Says Caldwell, “This is an opportunity to take what has been a very tough situation all year long on many fronts and do something really fun that we can give to the kids in this area.”