LEWISBURG — Now in its 23rd year, the Chocolate Festival, to benefit the Donald Heiter Community Center, will be held this weekend in Lewisburg with some changes so people can enjoy the event during COVID. 

Leslie Hosterman, vice president of the board, said the festival, which includes “various chocolate-themed events,” hosts more than 450 guests each February.  

In normal years, the event includes the major draws of a downtown Chocolate Tour and Chocolate Gala. This year, COVID restrictions forced planners and participants to get creative. With an appropriately named “Sweeten Your Spirits” theme, however, this popular tradition is pressing on. 

Hosterman said they are collaborating with Lewisburg Downtown Partnership and CommUnity Zone this year to keep the Chocolate Tour alive, though in a slightly modified way. 

The Chocolate Tour will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. 

“By encouraging masking and social distancing, participants will still have the opportunity to sample chocolates while shopping downtown,” Hosterman said. “The biggest difference this year is that pre-packaged chocolate will be distributed to ticket holders at several outdoor locations.” 

For those who don’t want to walk, there is also a drive-thru option for the Chocolate Tour on Saturday at the Lewisburg Children’s Museum; the first 100 will receive a special STEM hot chocolate activity kit.  

Tickets for the tour are available on the community center website at www.donaldheiter.org; designated time slots will help manage the number of people downtown at one time. Tickets will also be available at the Campus Theater during the event, until sold out. 

The downtown will light up with Lewisburg in Lights on Friday, and an original podcast with local musicians will be available during the tour at www.donaldheiter.org or facebook.com/donaldheiter

From 12 to 3 p.m., Saturday, a scavenger hunt for the family will be held, with an additional chocolate prize for those who complete it (limited to the first 50 participants). 

In addition, the traditional in-person “indulgent Chocolate Gala,” Hosterman said, will this year be replaced with an “exciting virtual ‘Un-Gala’ hosted by local favorite personality Chad Evans of 94KX and Stone State Entertainment.” 

She said the event will include virtual wine tasting with Union Cellars, a special message from the families of the Donald Heiter Community Center, cooking with That Kitchen Witch, and make-together meal kits delivered to ticket holders. 

The virtual “Un-Gala” will begin at 6:30 p.m. Saturday. 

In typical years, the chocolate for the gala is donated by local businesses, restaurants and bakeries. According to Melissa Apanel, Chocolate Festival coordinator, it’s usually enough to fill tables that run along the Second and Market street walls of the upstairs ballroom in the Lewisburg Hotel. Though the gala is canceled this year, participants will still get chocolate in the form of individual chocolate lava cakes and bite-sized chocolates along with their make-at-home pizza kits that can be delivered to their home Saturday morning. 

Also, the donated chocolate items will be auctioned off. Apanel explains that “We asked businesses to provide their item and recipe and people to donate money to their favorite. The person who bids the most money to an item will win that item delivered on Saturday night.” 

The Gala’s normal “Raise the Paddle” live auction has also been replaced this year with a virtual fundraising version. Hosterman said they are “delighted with the generous response” received thus far. As of Tuesday, approximately $10,000 of the $35,000 had been received. The site, available at www.donaldheiter.org, will remain open for donations through midnight Saturday. Apanel said information on the fundraiser will be available to people participating in the Chocolate Tour. 

Though Hosterman admits there was a “major learning curve” in planning a virtual Chocolate Festival fundraiser, it was important to the center that the event continue this year. According to Apanel, the Chocolate Festival is the community center’s largest fundraiser, and the center relies on grants and fundraisers since they receive no federal or state funding. 

They encourage people to come out and participate in the fun events, while also supporting a worthy cause. 

“The Chocolate Tour is a way to get outside in the fresh air and walk through downtown, and sample some chocolate in the process,” Apanel said. From the scavenger hunt, to a podcast, to virtual cooking lessons, entertainment, and meal-kits — and of course chocolate — there’s plenty to enjoy. 

And who doesn’t need something to enjoy these days? 

“In the midst of a dark winter and after such a tough year, our virtual Chocolate Festival gives participants a chance to sweeten their spirits and enjoy some socially responsible fun while supporting the DHCC,” Hosterman said.

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