Ottawa First, which fundraises for city’s July 4 fireworks, may disband over lacking membership

Group seeks new volunteers to fund city’s fireworks

A crowd of spectators sat in lawn chairs along Prospect Avenue in Ottawa where it meets Catherine Street on the south bank of the Illinois River to watch the Independence Day fireworks Tuesday, July 4, 2023.

It’s impossible to calculate the number of oohs and aahs, the gasps and shouts, the moments and memories that the fireworks-funding efforts of Ottawa First has generated over the years.

But all of those may have come to an end with last week’s Fourth of July show.

According to Ottawa First member Lou Anne Carretto, the nonprofit organization that for the last 14 years has worked to finance the annual pyrotechnic displays on the city’s riverfront will cease to exist as it is now known.

Age, health issues and family priorities have cut the group’s membership to the point where it will disband, barring the step up of new members.

“Some of us are getting older,” Carretto said. “Our ability to stand on a corner for a long time or go to Financial Plus or Handy Foods for an eight- or nine-hour day and collect is getting more difficult … Our people have kids that are getting married, they have grandkids, they’re not available to do things they’d done in the past because of commitments to family is something I’m sure every volunteer organization is going through.

“This year’s show was pretty fabulous. The company that does the fireworks for us (J & M Displays and Central States Fireworks) knew we wanted to have a great finale, not only for this year’s show but for the end of Ottawa First.”

The current membership consists of Larry Johnson, Lou Anne and Bob Carretto, Chuck Stanley, Pat Applebee, Nancy Roach, Dan Aussem, Scott Munks, Shelly Munks, James Less, Linda Johnson, John Duback, Sherri Countryman, Jay LeSeure, Kathy Bishop, Jack Feehan and Steve Brenbarger.

The group has tried to recruit any and all new members in recent years, but have been unsuccessful.

“We’re OK with someone coming up and saying, ‘hey, we don’t think this Ottawa First is snappy enough and we need to call it something different,’ or if they want to brand their own themes or ways of doing things,” Carretto said. “We’re not saying you have to do this or that. Young people have their own ways of doing things.

“We’re in good shape right now. We’ve saved and invested the money we raised, so if there was a group or organization that wanted to take it over, the city will get the funding and we would pitch in so the group wouldn’t have to come up with the entire amount … Like Chuck Stanley said, we’re always working on the next year in case of those years when people couldn’t donate, so we could provide a nice show for the community.”

After the group of friends and community members gathered to pay for its first fireworks in 2010, it formally organized into Ottawa First the following year.

Since then, it has used a myriad of fundraising methods to come up with roughly $27,000 per year to sponsor the shows. Ottawa First sponsored the first Oktoberfest and five more, plus a 5K race, the “Ottawa First Has Talent” show and the selling of lottery tickets.

But the biggest fundraiser was always the weekends standing at the four corners, at Columbus Street and East Norris Drive, and at Handy Foods and Financial Plus with a bucket.

“Since that first year, our members have come and gone,” Carretto said. “We had a nice group and then people would come for a year and then left, and sometimes their connections to generate a few more funds went with them.

“It was a lot of work, convincing people that they needed to part with that $20 bill or whatever they were donating … But I was always impressed with how generous everyone was and how grateful.”

That community gratitude made the effort a labor of love for the group.

“It has been a very rewarding experience,” Carretto said, her voice choked with emotion, “and it’s going to break our hearts to not be doing this, but it’s taken up our time, too. We’re at the point where we need someone in here younger.

“But we’re very happy to do this for our community. I know we’ve put a lot of smiles on the faces of adults and children for many years. It’s been very rewarding.”

Contact Carretto at 815-252-4350 if you want to volunteer or want to help with a transition to fundraise for the fireworks.

Larry Johnson (Left) and Lou Anne Carretto (Right) thank the people of Ottawa for coming together for their annual 4th of July celebration on Thursday, July 4, 2024 at Ottawa High School.
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