Some come wrapped in boxes; others fit in bags. In the case of Akron Children’s Hospital’s annual Holiday Tree Festival, one gift can fill an entire convention center.
“The Holiday Tree Festival is Akron Children’s gift to the community,” says Heather Jalbert, who’s entering into her sixth year as the festival’s chairperson. “It’s become a family holiday tradition that spans generations.”
Originally founded in 1982 as a way for families to celebrate the holiday season, the event has grown into a larger-than-life spectacle, held at the John S. Knight Convention Center in downtown Akron. It requires 87,000 strands of lights and more than 1,000 volunteers to pull off the dizzying array of glimmering trees, each with its own theme.
“My favorite part of the event is the set up,” says Lori Baker, who began volunteering for the festival in 1993 and serves as the current public relations chairperson. “I love to watch the transformation of the trees as the decorators bring their creations to life.”
This year, the festival kicks off with the Preview Gala on Nov. 18. Attendees enjoy a sit-down dinner and dessert and have the first opportunity to purchase trees and other decorations. William Considine, president and CEO of Akron Children’s Hospital, and a group of a special group of youngsters will do the honors of opening the festival at a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Nov. 19.
The 2011 festival will run through Nov. 27. In addition to a magical display of trees and holiday decorations, visitors can enjoy music, entertainment, face painting and visit with Santa. In 2010, more than 250,000 people attended the festival.
“It’s incredible to see how much this event has transformed in 30 years,” says Madeline Bozzelli, who started volunteering at the event during its first year, when there were just 70 decorated wreaths and trees. “This year will be bigger and better than ever.”
The festival also is a gift to the patients of Akron Children’s. Proceeds from the sales of trees, wreaths and bows, as well as gift tables, donation boxes and more, benefit the hospital’s area of greatest need. This year, the festival includes a car raffle, and its proceeds will benefit the neonatal intensive care unit.
Preparation for the event takes months of work by volunteers, some of whom spend a full year making this happen. But volunteers insist that the joy of the event is a gift that more than makes up for the time they sacrifice.
“The excitement in the air at the festival is contagious,” says Margie McDonnell, a four-year festival volunteer who’s also decorated trees since 1992. “You develop true friendships and camaraderie when you’re involved in a worthwhile event like this. It’s just so special for all of us.”
Check out our video of last year’s event.