ELGIN, S.C. (WIS) - For 21 years, Elgin Lights has brought people together to celebrate family.
For the last 15 years, it’s been in honor of an 11-year-old boy who left his family far too soon. This year, they’ll honor the same boy in a new way. This year will be the first for Christmas in July.
The whole goal? To raise money for that boy to have a camp of his own.
"What we really try to have here is families can come with their children and their grandchildren and they can reminisce over the past and the present,” said Paul Towns as he gave the grand tour of his property.
For more than two decades, Towns has transformed his home into the Christmas family affair that is "Elgin Lights."
"It might take you all three hours to go through the museums,” Towns said as he walked the rows of the military museum, housing relics from World War I to the Korean War. “There's that much to see here.”
When you enter one of his hand-built museums, you can tell that the product you see is a lifetime’s worth of collecting. It’s all built and wired by hand. It’s a labor of love, if you will, for a child he didn’t know, but with whom he shares a struggle.
"2004,” Towns remembered. “That's when Cole Sawyer passed away and I found out I had cancer."
Cole had rhabdomyosarcoma, which is a rare cancer. Towns continues to battle lymphoma. Since 2004, all proceeds from Elgin Lights have gone to Camp KEMO in Cole's honor. Camp KEMO is a summer camp for kids battling blood cancers and disorders. It was one of Cole’s favorite places – one where his family said he experienced immense joy. Now, they’re working to break ground on his own camp. His sister, Kelsey S. Carter, is the founder and executive director. Her vision for Camp Cole is a place for everyone to experience that exact same joy.
"It will be a place where everyone can shine -- no matter their illness, disability or life challenge,” Carter said. “Where they can come together and no longer feel alone in whatever their struggle is."
But to begin the build, Carter said they need about a half a million more in funding. They want to hit the $6 million mark before they break ground. That's when Towns decided to host the first-ever Christmas in July from the 26th to the 28th. Families can enjoy the museums, live music, and the food just like during Christmas. A donation is appreciated but never required. Each dollar will go towards sending kids to camp in both Cole's honor and in his name.
"He lost his battle with the cancer but his legacy still lives on today,” Towns said. “Most people don't even get to have a legacy. They live their whole life and they die and they leave without a legacy at all. Nobody remembers them except for their family. But Cole has a legacy that's gonna live on forever."
Towns has spent the better part of two decades fostering Cole's legacy, remarkably unconcerned about his own. But with a sixth round of chemo likely ahead for Paul, both his family and the Carter family want him to know his legacy is in their heart as much as Cole's is in Paul’s.
"All the money that we're raising here is in honor of my father and Cole Sawyer as well,” said Christina Churchwell, Towns’ daughter. “But we're gonna have naming rights and put a building out there in his name. To always be out there even when he's not here to show him how much his legacy has meant to everybody as well."
It’s an honor he has never sought but will cherish for the rest of his life.
"They're gonna dedicate a building to me. Honored,” Towns said through tears. “I'm real honored. I don't know if I deserve it, but it means a whole, whole lot. I do it because I love what I do. I do it for the kids. For them to dedicate a building at Camp Cole in my honor, it means more than words can ever say."
If you’d like to give to Camp Cole in Towns’ honor, you can attend Christmas in July at 2433 Charlie Horse Circle, Elgin, SC 29045 from July 26th-28th from 6-9 p.m.
You can also give on the Camp Cole website’s donation page.