'We are Waukesha Strong': Thousands attend 59th annual Christmas parade to celebrate holidays, show support

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WAUKESHA, Wis. (CBS 58) -- On Sunday, thousands of people crowded onto the sidewalks in Waukesha to celebrate the holidays and to show support for a community that was altered permanently, after a man drove into the route in Nov. 2021, killing six and injuring more than 60 others.

Dec. 4 marked the 59th annual Waukesha Christmas parade.

Around 80 groups participated in the event, marching, cheering and holding signs displaying #WaukeshaStrong -- a hashtag that's grown to symbolize not only strength but resilience, power, heart and unity.

Parade organizers said this was one of the largest turnouts ever, with people coming from not only outside of Wisconsin, but tuning in from around the world.

This year's theme was "Peace on Earth" -- a message organizers said they were attempting to highlight and spread. 

For many, the return of the parade brought mixed feelings. Some longtime Waukesha residents said while they were glad to see the event go on, they were also anxious at the thought of revisiting a place of tragedy.

“We were really happy to see that Waukesha was proceeding with a Christmas parade. We also, you know, have some nerves and some fears. We said a couple of extra prayers at our church today," said Bonnie Stojadinovic, who witnessed the attack with her daughter. "We’ve all managed to somehow come through it stronger and more committed to each other as a community. To me, that’s what really defines Waukesha."

Michele Neilson said although the parade started at 4 p.m., she was ready and waiting at 2:30 p.m.

"I remember when we were young kids, and my parents would sit in one of the businesses and we would all stand on the curb. It was just awesome," Neilson said. "We're here to be a part of it."

Her friend, Mary Miller, agreed, adding that what happened "was just so unbelievable".

"We just had to come out here and show our support," Miller said. 

For Waukesha County resident Jayne O'Malley, the Christmas Parade is a family tradition.

"We were here last year of course, and it was such a festive, wonderful evening," O'Malley reminisced. "You see some of the people where their groups were injured and some of them killed, and they're back. I am so glad to be a part of this community and see so many people celebrating life."

One of the first floats in the parade had six snowflakes, meant to honor and remember those whose lives were lost last November. 

The Dancing Grannies were also toward the front of the parade, holding pictures of the four in their group who were killed.

Girl Scout Troop Leader Heidi Chada was also present with some members of the troop, said coming out Sunday was important for their healing process.

"One of the little girls actually said to me, 'Miss Heidi, this will be therapeutic for us to face our fears. Let's build a float and show everyone that we are Girl Scout strong that we face our fears,'" Chada said. 

Their float featured Girl Scout handprints holding up a globe with the message: "Let there be peace on Earth and let it begin with us."

Seventy-five people from the Liberty Dance Center also came out in full force for the parade.

"Our people that are here today are ready to do what we always do and spread joy and dance and show up for our community and show that we're Waukesha strong because we truly believe that we are and we're proud to be part of this community," said Liberty Dancer Center Owner Kate Moody.

Seventeen-year-old Jessica Major with Liberty Dance agreed, noting that she "wasn't about to just stop doing what I love with the people I love'.

"This is a strong community and we’re going to move forward as a community, and we have to take it one day at a time and today is going to be the parade that everybody has joyous memories of," Stojadinovic said. 

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