Anna Griffin’s family fell in love with the Gulfport Harbor Lights Winter Festival last year, but she worried it would be the only time she’d be able to take all three of her sons to see the holiday show.
Griffin and her husband took their boys to Jones Park right before they would fly with their youngest child, Asher, to Pennsylvania for open-heart surgery at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Asher was born with tetralogy of Fallot with pumonary atresia, a congenital heart defect. Last year at about this time, Griffin and Asher learned at his routine cardiology appointment in New Orleans he would need a heart catheterization and surgery.
The Griffins had to leave their other sons at home in Gulfport and spend Christmas and New Year’s in Philadelphia while Asher recovered. After surgery, Griffin said Asher’s lungs collapsed and he was unable to fly on an airplane, so she and her husband drove him home to Mississippi.
A bright holiday
This year, though, the Griffins will spend the holiday season together. It began Tuesday evening when Asher flipped the switch in Jones Park to turn on the lights for the 2016 Winter Festival, thanks to help from Make-A-Wish Mississippi.
Asher, wearing a snowman hat and mittens, excitedly ran to the power box in the middle of Jones Park. With help, he put on a hard hat and high-visibility vest and practiced pushing up the lever to power the Christmas trees. He had a little help from Mayor Billy Hewes and Santa Claus.
Last year was an emotional time, Griffin said, because they didn’t know what the future held for Asher, a 6-year-old who loves being outside, playing with his brothers, ages 7 and 17, and watching the Disney Channel.
“We were just praying he would be able to do it with us this year,” she said.
“It was a long journey both medically and emotionally, but we are so thankful for his recovery.”
Griffin said Asher loves Christmas and was super-excited to be able to turn on the lights.
Asher screamed “Santa’s here!” when St. Nick arrived to help him.
He was surrounded by his mother, brothers, aunts, cousin and grandmother. His father works in an oil field, Griffin said, and he won’t be home for the holidays until Wednesday.
Asher has had five heart catheterizations and three open-heart surgeries since he was born, and there is no cure for his condition. Griffin said he will require lifelong specialized cardiac care. He also has high blood pressure in his lungs. In addition, Asher suffers from developmental delays because of a brain injury at birth.
Medical conditions aside, Griffin said, Asher is just a normal kid.
He attends preschool at Christian Collegiate Academy and loves sports, although he won’t ever be able to play contact sports.
Asher loves playing on the playground, his mom said, and he loves Mickey Mouse, Sonic the Hedgehog and playing on the iPad.
Light show bigger and better
The 2016 holiday season in Gulfport kicked off when Asher switched on the light show, which city spokesman Chris Vignes said is bigger and better this year.
There are lots more lights and many more decorations. The iconic anchor that welcomes visitors to the Gulfport Harbor is covered in lights.
“It’s incredible what they’ve done,” Vignes said.
This year, guests will have more ways to travel through the park to see the lights, and Santa will be greeting children and taking photos at Santa’s Village under the Barksdale Pavilion every day until Christmas.
In July, someone stole some of the light show’s decorations and equipment, but Vignes said that just inspired the city to trump last year’s display.
“It encouraged us to go bigger and better,” Vignes said.
No one has been named or arrested in the burglary.
Vignes said 42,000 guests attended the show last year and he hopes 60,000 or more will come see the $1 million attraction.
The show is sponsored by Island View Casino Resort and the casino is providing $2.5 million over a five years to cover display costs. The city’s Leisure Services Department does most of the work to prepare and run the festival.
Last year, the show brought in $50,000 to the city after expenses.
The Winter Festival runs through Jan. 1.
Staff writers Robin Fitzgerald and Anita Lee contributed to this report.
Gulfport Harbor Lights
When: Daily 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. (lights go out at 10:30 p.m.)
Where: Jones Park at the Gulfport harbor
Admission: $5 per person ($40 season pass)
Note: Open every night except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day