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Cathy Shanley is one of the many volunteers helping to string together one of the region’s most cherished holiday traditions, the Ivoryton Illuminations, which starts on Saturday, Dec. 1. (Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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If you wanted to find Cathy Shanley any Saturday since early October, there was only one place to look: the barn where the lights for Ivoryton Illuminations are stored. Cathy was there along with other volunteers unpacking the lights, checking each strand for non-functioning bulbs, joining the strands together into the long chains that will light up the night along the Ivoryton Green for the ninth annual Illuminations on Saturday, Dec. 1st from 5 to 8 p.m.
Illuminations is sponsored by the Ivoryton Alliance, which also sponsors the annual Fourth of July parade and the summer farmer’s market on the Ivoryton Green.
With some 400,000 bulbs synchronized to musical accompaniment, Illuminations is one of the largest light shows in Connecticut. And as is its tradition, there will be new elements added to the light show this year.
“But I don’t want to tell. We want to surprise people,” Cathy says.
The lights will remain in place throughout the month of December.
For Cathy, the huge lit tree in the center of the green is the highlight of the evening. For younger visitors, the highlight might well be the arrival of Santa Claus, who floats down from the sky in what, of course, might be a sled with real reindeer, but, due to high demand for the reindeer team, looks suspiciously like a construction company’s aerial lift.
Once again, youngsters can hunt for the Elf on the Shelf, with 10-inch figures hidden inside shops and other locations around the green. Circle K Farm is running another popular feature, the petting zoo. Students from Valley Regional High School are selling cookies, the funds to be contributed to an international drive to combat hunger and the Essex police will be collecting food items for their Stuff-a-Cruiser program to benefit the Shoreline Soup Kitchen & Pantries.
Cathy, who lived in Ivoryton for some 30 years, is returning as a volunteer on Illuminations, on which she previously volunteered before she and her husband Kerry Desmond moved to Alpharetta, Georgia, for his job. When he decided to retire after three years in Georgia, there was no doubt the couple would come back to this area.
“He said he wanted to return to Connecticut and there was no argument from me. I was born and raised in Connecticut. It was coming home,” Cathy says.
Cathy, now also retired, spent most of her career in the non-profit area in the field of human services, working with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“People have an affliction and they are slapped with a label, but the bottom line is we are all people,” she says.
One of her areas of particular expertise was finding employment in the community for the population she served. People with disabilities, Cathy says, can make excellent employees. She points out they can be helped with special instruction, visual aids, and adaptive equipment.
“They follow directions, they don’t deviate, they don’t look for shortcuts, and they are proud of what they accomplish,” she says.
When Cathy was working for Goodwill Industries of Springfield in the Hartford area, her job was initially to bring work into a sheltered workshop. Her goal, however, was to bring the workers out to the jobs. She mapped an action plan to shift to community jobs with many of the same employers who had once sent contract projects to the agency.
According to Cathy, as people moved out of the sheltered workshop, those left would walk in, look around, and ask where everybody had gone. They were encouraged to work in the community not only by Cathy but by their friends who already were having positive experiences.
Cathy worked in a number of state-funded private agencies focused on helping disabled adults. One of her projects for a Farmington-based group was the creation of a community garden where a team of 60 people worked, growing in one season some 240 pounds of produce for other residents of the agency’s eight group homes and, in the process, learning more about nutrition and wellness themselves.
Cathy didn’t start out as an advocate for people with disabilities. When she graduated from Guilford High School, she went to hairdressing school. She liked the creative part of hair styling, but decided the beauty salon business wasn’t for her. She worked for a medical manufacturing company that sent some jobs to a sheltered workplace. That was her introduction to employment for people with disabilities.
She found the field offered her the chance not only to improve the lives of the people she served, but also to use her own strengths to advantage.
“I am by nature creative and incredibly organized, and I was fortunate to be in an environment where I was called to step forward and lead,” she says. “I followed my passion. Nothing is more exciting than placing a person with disabilities in a job,” she says.
Cathy has been a consistent community volunteer, serving for 20 years as an usher at the Ivoryton Playhouse. She has also been an active Rotarian, both in Connecticut and in Georgia. At the moment, she is the president-elect of the Deep River Rotary club. When she returned to this area, Chris Shane, long the guiding force behind Illuminations, and Jim Crowell, another longtime Illuminations volunteer, suggested she also join the Essex Lions Club. Now she is its secretary. She adds that many of the volunteers who help with Illuminations are also Essex Lions Club members.
When Ivoryton Green lights up on Dec. 1, Cathy describes the overall effect as magical and amazing. She will help installing the strands of lights, but says there is a limit to her effectiveness.
“I will put up what I can reach,” says the 5’3” Cathy.
Illuminations starts on Saturday, Dec. 1 from 5 to 8 p.m. on the Ivoryton Green; light remain up through the month of December. A shuttle will circle from Ivory Street to Comstock Avenue to the Ivoryton Congregational Church to enable visitors to park and ride to the festivities.
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