Rhonda Sanders’ enthusiasm for Halloween is hard to match.
The Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office deputy is the founder and director of the Halloween Haunted House, a law enforcement-organized event that goes back 10 years to when Sanders was a Columbus Police Department officer. This year, she has no fewer than four Halloween costumes she’ll wear during the four-day event, which has emerged as the Community Benefits Committee’s biggest fundraiser.
So it might surprise you to learn that Sanders wasn’t a lifelong fan of the October holiday.
“No,” she said laughing. “I don’t think I hardly ever even went trick-or-treating until I was grown up. It wasn’t something our family did.”
Author Tom Robbins wrote, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”
Where celebrating Halloween is concerned, Sanders appears to have embraced that idea.
“Now, it’s one of my favorite holidays,” she said. “My daughter Brooklyn was born on Oct. 13, and all her birthday parties have been Halloween-themed. And, of course, I’ve been doing the Haunted House for close to 10 years now.”
Preparations for this year’s event, which will be held Oct. 28-31 at the Fairgrounds, are well underway after the event was canceled last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Construction on the various rooms, each featuring their own variation of spooky characters, are complete. Decorating the rooms begins this week.
This year’s haunted house, with the theme “The Dead Pirate’s Cove,” features a haunted shipwreck constructed by carpenter Ray Tulipan.
“He did an amazing job,” Sanders said. “Every year, we try to add something, change the theme to make it new. I think Ray and all the people who have been working on it have really outdone themselves this year. I’m so excited.”
The haunted house originally raised funds for families of Columbus police and firefighters, but it has evolved. Now under the Community Benefits Committee, which Sanders co-founded with Julie Parker three years ago, the money raised goes primarily to the Christmas Bicycle Fund, although some of the money goes to other CBC programs, including utility assistance for needy families.
The goal each year is to raise $10,000, but Sanders said they usually eclipse that.
In addition to the money raised through admission, concessions also produce revenue. This year, the money from concessions each night will go to different groups — including funds for the 81-year-old mother of a sheriff’s deputy who lost her home and all of its contents to a house fire, the New Hope volleyball team and the West Lowndes High School band.
There will also be a raffle for a $1,000 prize (tickets are $2) to raise funds to buy instruments for the West Lowndes band.
LCSO Investigator Tommy Watkins, who has been helping Sanders with the event since they met as members of the CPD, is in charge of supervising the construction of the haunted house, which moved from the Trotter Center to the Fairgrounds in 2018.
“I loved Halloween as a kid,” Watkins said. “I still do, but I love helping kids even more.”
Watkins said the haunted house features more than 3,000 square feet.
“We have just about every kind of spooky thing you can imagine,” he said. “It gets bigger and better every year.”
Sanders said that the event serves a much bigger purpose than entertainment.
“Not everyone celebrates Halloween or cares about it,” Sanders said. “I get that. But everybody should care about children and the money we raise from the haunted house helps us take care of children in our community. So even if you don’t want to come to the haunted house, donate that $10 for a ticket.
“We all have the privilege of having different beliefs,” Sanders continued. “But everyone should believe in our kids and their future. That’s what we are trying to do here. That’s the most important thing.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]