Mike Justak has 60,000 lights in his holiday display this year – one for every American diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease in 2017.
For the past eight years, the 60-year-old has been raising awareness about the progressive, incurable movement disorder by lighting up his neighborhood with an elaborate, multi-house, holiday light show he calls PD Shimmers.
The annual display covers several homes on Ithaca Lane in the Twin Cities suburb of Plymouth. Every year, families in warm cars drive in, tune their radios to 97.9 FM, and look on as the lights shimmer and dance around the block in sync to music. Justak picks new tunes every year, and updates the playlist nightly. This year's show features Johnny Mathis, the Trans Siberian Orchestra, Backstreet Boys, and Pentatonix.
"Every year I try to think of what tune I wanna use for my first song. Cause it's kind of like a big reveal and you want people to be surprised and 'ooh' and 'ahh,'" he told GoMN.
This year's show started differently. Justak announced to the crowd gathered on his street that this would be the last season for PD Shimmers. And when Mayor Kelli Slavic pressed the green button to illuminate the display, there was no music.
Instead, a voice said, "60,000 Americans newly diagnosed with Parkinson's this year; 60,000 lights – one for each person newly diagnosed. This Is PD Shimmers!"
"Parkinson's changed my life."
Justak was 47 when he learned he had Young Onset Parkinson's Disease. He was angry and in denial for years.
"I went to a group meeting and I didn't go back because I said 'Those people are all sick. I'm not sick. I don't need that,'" he told GoMN. "It took two or three years before I actually went back."
Justak says his outlook changed on Easter Sunday, 2006, when he experienced what he refers to as an "awakening."
"I had these images of Michael J. Fox and my family, and all the influential people that I knew. And they just kept running through my mind. So I thought well, maybe I'm being given guidance on what I should do."
Inspired by the Michael J. Fox Foundation, Justak created the Mike Justak Foundation for Parkinson's Disease in 2007, with a goal of helping other Minnesotans with the disorder. The foundation funds exercise programs, including boxing classes, which can help improve can improve balance, gait, and quality of life for local Parkinson's patients.
"When Parkinson's is really getting you down, you can't just sit there – you have to move. It's a movement disorder and if you give in and just stop moving, it's going to make it even more difficult," Justak said.
One sleepless Christmas Eve night, Justak was googling Christmas lights displays when he stumbled on a minute-and-a-half video of a house with lights synced up to music.
"I was just in awe of it, the way the lights moved," he said.
Justak wanted a display to raise Parkinson's awareness and raise funds for his foundation. For months, he taught himself how to program the music and lights, and debuted his first show in 2010. It featured 8,000 lights and seven fresh-cut Christmas trees. He named the show PD Shimmers.
"PD is Parkinson's Disease, and shimmer... it's for the light equivalent of tremor – the most pronounced symptom associated with Parkinson's. I try to do things tongue-in-cheek. My fantasy football team was Shake and Bake," he explained with a chuckle.
The next year, there were 20,000 lights. Then 40,000. And his neighbors got in on it.
This year there are roughly 60,000 lights (about 800 boxes) and eight homes involved. Justak did all the work, and started setting up a couple dozen 14-gallon rubber tubs worth of equipment in September.
Before his neighbors showed up for the big reveal, Justak joked that he'd practiced the choreography for a Backstreet Boys video – one of the sequences projected onto his garage door. He said he looks forward to all of the children and visitors each year, but the connections made with others suffering from Parkinson's really stick with him.
"One January I received a letter from Marty. And the letter started 'Last year I was one of your lights. I was just freshly diagnosed at the end of the year, and my wife heard about your display, and took me to see the lights. The spot came on that explained 58,000 lights for people newly diagnosed. And when the lights came up, I realized that I'm not alone, that I can get through this," Justak said.
"It's just things like that, that keep you going."
Plan your visit
When:PD Shimmers is now open each evening from 5 to 10 p.m.
Where: 4320 Ithaca Lane N, Plymouth, MN 55446
Things to know:
- Depending on the night, there may be greeters directing traffic. Want to help? Volunteer to be a greeter here.
- Please turn off your vehicle lights while visiting the light show, and be respectful to the neighbors.
- The show length varies depending on traffic; it can last anywhere from 15 minutes to 60 minutes.
- Justak does not recommend driving or walking down the street during the Johnny Mathis "Winter Wonderland" sequence.
- Donations for the Mike Justak Foundation can be made at a red, lit-up donation box at the end of the driveway at 4320 Ithaca Lane N. It's hard to miss – and rewards you with a surprise when you drop money in the slot.
Q & A
How did Parkinson's Disease change your life? It changed my life in ways that I probably never would've dreamed of. It seems silly to say maybe, or just strange, that I'm lucky that Parkinson's entered my life because of the changes that it made, the people that I was introduced to. I've met the most amazing people, and unfortunately they all have Parkinson's.
How long does it take to synchronize the lights to the music? The rule of thumb is that you should allow 10 hours for each minute. So a three minute song would be almost a full week's worth – 30-plus hours. You pick up some efficiencies the more you do it. I'm probably about seven hours [for each minute].
Why is this the last season for PD Shimmers? Running it day to day is probably more complex than most people would think. And then there's the voice of my neurologist, who I love, in my head: "The light show, whether you like it or not, induces stress into your life." Stress and Parkinson's do not go together. I can only keep pushing myself so hard for so long before it's going to start having consequences that I can't control or reverse. I have to think about myself and go back to why I retired in the first place – job one is taking care of me. If I can't take care of me, I can't help anybody else. So I'll just have to morph into new ways of trying to do what I wanna do to help people.
What will you do with your yard next winter? I'll probably do a light show – I can't see going cold turkey. Maybe 8,000-10,000 lights next year, which sounds like a lot – it is a lot – but for me it's a walk in the park. No sponsors, no PD Shimmers, no voiceovers, no video, no production. I'll just put some lights up, turn the transmitter on, listen to the music and enjoy the lights.