Every Fourth of July as the sky darkens and loud explosions begin to erupt in the sky, Chuck Gasser doesn’t look up.
Instead, the Overland Park resident looks at the faces of those around him.
For him, the fireworks celebration, known as the Star Spangled Spectacular, is the culmination of nearly a year of work and planning. It’s one of the highlights of a very long day spent setting up tents, assisting vendors, reuniting lost loved ones and solving problems.
“I want to see the expressions on the people’s and the kids’ faces of what they are enjoying,” says Gasser, who chairs the Star Spangled Spectacular this year.
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The event, which takes places each year in Founders Park at Corporate Woods, 9711 W. 109th St., will celebrate its 25th anniversary on Monday. It’s a celebration rich with history in the Johnson County community, and while it is estimated that more than 100,000 people watch the show each year, many may not know just who is responsible for putting on the display.
The Star Spangled Spectacular is run by the Overland Park Rotary Foundation and serves as a fundraiser each year for the Rotary and local charities.
This year, Make-a-Wish Missouri, Sunflower House and the Rotary Youth Leadership Institute all will benefit from the celebration.
“We plan every single aspect of this event,” said Craig Novorr, president of the Overland Park Rotary Foundation. “We go out and find all the food trucks, we go out and find all the sponsors, we go out and make all the posters. We have to find all the musical acts and emcees.”
It requires a lot of volunteer hours and dedication each year, but it’s something members of the Overland Park Rotary Foundation say they are happy to do because of the impact the Star Spangled Spectacular makes on the community the night of the event and beyond.
“That’s one of the things I really loved about (the Rotary) is doing stuff like this to help others,” member Chad Welter said.
The work for Overland Park Rotary Foundation members begins long before the first firework ever goes off.
The group starts planning for the event in July or August of the year before and meets throughout the year to find sponsors, vendors and entertainment. They coordinate with the city of Overland Park and the Overland Park police and fire departments to make sure the event will be safe for those who attend.
“It’s quite the undertaking,” Gasser said.
He has served as the chair of the event for the last four years.
When July 4 rolls around each year, his day begins early.
He usually arrives at Corporate Woods by 7:45 a.m. just as the tents are arriving. What begins as a big empty field quickly transforms throughout the day as tents are set up, trash cans are brought in and a stage is erected.
“By 4 p.m. when we are ready to go live, everything is where it’s supposed to be, from delivering ice and beverages to our beverage tents, to having all the food vendors in place,” Gasser said.
Festivities for the public begin at 4 p.m. with live music following soon after at 5:30 p.m. Families are able to listen to music, purchase food or drinks and relax as they wait for the fireworks show to begin. This year, to celebrate the event’s 25th anniversary, the 190th Air Refueling Wing Kansas Air Guard will perform a low-altitude flyover at 8 p.m. There will also be a bounce house for children at the park.
After it gets dark outside, the fireworks begin and Gasser can breathe a sigh of relief that everything has gone smoothly once again.
Last year, he grabbed himself an ice cream cone, pulled up a chair and watched as families enjoyed the show.
“I just float around to try to see what the people’s experiences are,” he said.
The city of Overland Park is in charge of organizing the firework show and foots the bill for the $28,000 display.
After the last firework and final song from the band, Gasser and his team start to tear everything down once again.
“I usually leave there about 1 a.m. in the morning,” he said. “My wife and daughter usually say, ‘Dad, go have fun and don’t wake us up when you come home.’ ”
The fireworks display isn’t the only highlight of the day. The Overland Park Rotary Foundation also hosts a veterans dinner each year for veterans and their families.
Last year, they served approximately 700 veterans and their families. The veterans from all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces receive a reserved parking space and a free dinner, which this year will be donated by the Doubletree Hotel.
“They’ll have a private tent to sit in and enjoy the afternoon,” Gasser said, adding that they will also rope off an area by the tent where veterans can watch the fireworks show with their families.
Welter headed the veterans dinner last year and will resume his post this year as well. He said it’s always a rewarding experience.
“I have a lot of family and friends that have been in the military and it’s just … a small way to say thanks for the sacrifice they’ve made in their lives and for protecting our freedom,” he said.
Welter said last year some of the veterans had even told him that they normally don’t like fireworks because of the loud noise, but they appreciated a chance to watch the show surrounded by other veterans.
“It was a lot more calming and comfortable and a better time for them,” he said.
Each year the event also serves as a fundraiser for several local charities.
The free event makes money each year through corporate sponsorships, Rotary member donations, booth rental fees and the sale of beer, wine and other beverages on the night of the event.
Last year, the Star Spangled Spectacular, the Overland Park Rotary’s biggest fundraiser of the year, grossed $114,000. The organization gave away $57,500 to area charities. They haven’t kept a running total of how much they’ve raised in the 25 years of the event but in 2014, they raised $120,000, giving $63,000 to charities.
The event always helps support the Rotary Youth Leadership Institute, a five-day program designed to help area high school students gain leadership experience and have a greater understanding of how they can help their community. Each year two additional charities are selected as well after a thorough application process.
Each charity is selected by the Overland Park Rotary Foundation’s members to serve a two-year term as a beneficiary.
“The charities that we choose have to be recommended to the selection committee by a member of the club, so then we look at what a member of the club’s participation with that charity is and what their interaction is,” Novorr said.
For instance, Novorr serves on the board for Make-a-Wish Missouri, one of the charities selected to benefit this year.
Make-a-Wish Missouri, which grants wishes to children with life-threatening illnesses, is on its second year as a beneficiary and received a donation from the Star Spangled Spectacular last year as well.
“We can grant a wish with every $5,000 that is raised, and so last year Rotary was able to write out a check for $20,000, so essentially we were able to grant four wishes,” Novorr said.
Novorr said the donation made a significant impact on the charity last year.
“That’s just a great head start on our annual campaign,” he said.
Sunflower House is in its first year as one of the Star Spangled Spectacular’s charities.
Michelle S. Herman, the organization’s president and CEO, said being one of the charities selected benefits Sunflower House in a few ways.
First, the cash helps fill in funding gaps for the children’s advocacy and abuse prevention center.
“In our case, we get about 40 percent of our revenue from government grants, but the rest of it is all through other sources, so we have to raise about $900,000 every year just from other sources, individuals and events and things like that,” Herman said.
Aside from the financial advantage, Herman said being one of the charities selected also gives Sunflower House a way to increase the community’s knowledge about what the charity does.
“We’re a small organization, so no matter how much we individually are out there trying to share the mission with people, it’s opportunities like this that really give us an extra boost,” Herman said.
Sunflower House works to prevent child physical and sexual abuse through advocacy and education. The organization is a nationally accredited children’s advocacy center and coordinates abuse investigations for Johnson and Wyandotte counties.
They also provide prevention and education programs for both children and adults throughout the community.
“We actually reach about 22,000 kids every year of different ages and then about 4,000 adults as well,” Herman said.
Both Sunflower House and Make-a-Wish Missouri will have volunteers on hand Monday to help with the Star Spangled Spectacular as well.
“We’ve got a lot of volunteers that help us out for those kind of things, so that’s kind of an in-kind contribution that we can make,” Herman said.
Each year, the Star Spangled Spectacular is an opportunity for families to come together from across Johnson County to enjoy the fireworks show.
But, the event’s reach isn’t contained within just one night.
Gasser said aside from watching the joy the night gives others, one of the biggest highlights for him is being able to hand the local charities the checks each fall.
“In September when I present the checks to the three charities, that’s when you can puff up your chest and feel really warm and good about what that day and all that work means,” he said. “You are giving some money to a place that really can use it and it’s going to make an impact in their budget.”
And although the event is just days away, Novorr said it’s never too late for other members of the community to get involved, too.
“If people don’t have Fourth of July plans and don’t want to go watch fireworks by themselves, we’d love to have them come out and volunteer,” he said. “We’ll find a spot for them doing something they’ll have fun with and meet some great people.”
Star Spangled Spectacular
The Overland Park Rotary Foundation will host the 25th anniversary of the Star Spangled Spectacular fireworks show on Monday in Founders Park at Corporate Woods, 9711 W. 109th St.
4 p.m.: The event begins and families are able to find a spot to view the fireworks and visit food and beverage vendors
5:30 p.m.: Live music
8 p.m.: Low-altitude flyover performed by the 190th Air Refueling Wing Kansas Air Guard
9:30 p.m.: Fireworks
11 p.m.: The band plays its last song
How to help
To learn more about the event or how to volunteer, visit the website at starspangledspectacular.org.