Members of the public are invited to attend the 26th annual Winter Tree Festival at Tooele High School tonight and Wednesday night.
THS student body officers organize the festival each year to benefit local families in need. This year’s festival features 43 Christmas trees decorated by various clubs, sports teams, and organizations, said Cody Valdez, one of the student government teacher advisors.
Each tree was created for a specific family, Valdez explained. The school works with the local food bank to get a list of families who could use a helping hand during the holiday season. After the families are assigned to different student groups, students raise money to pay for the tree and gifts.
“All of the money is raised by students; the gifts are bought by students and wrapped by students,” Valdez said. “I’m sure parents help out, but ultimately, everything is done 100 percent by the students of Tooele High School, which I love.”
The entire festival is organized by several committees of student body officers, with help from their advisors. Sydnee Bird, a senior, served as festival chair this year.
One of her duties as chair was to assign each family to the student group that will sponsor them. She also helped find the tree decorations.
“This is my first year being in charge of the whole thing, but I’ve been on committees to help (before),” Bird said. “It takes quite a lot of time, but it’s worth it.”
A few representatives from each student group got together last week to decorate their Christmas trees. Bird helped decorate four — one for every group she’s a part of, including girls soccer, drill team, Interact Club, and student government.
“I like how we’re able to come together as a school and help the community, because people need help in the community,” she said. “It’s really cool to see everyone come together and help them.”
Josie Beer, another teacher advisor for student government, remarked on how much thought each club put into their tree.
“The clubs kind of bring their own unique flair to it,” she said. “Some of them make their ornaments, like the math and German clubs, … and the art club did some ornaments with pottery. … The FFA have some that are farm animal ornaments, and they made their tree skirt. … Some of those trees are really fun; others put lots of bows and fancy things on them. Cheer’s has lots of bling. It’s kind of fun.”
The trees are currently on display in the Tooele High School common room. The display is free and open to the public Monday-Wednesday from 5-8 p.m.
On Thursday, the benefiting families are invited to a private event where they get to meet a student representative from the group that sponsored their Christmas. Families will also have a chance to take a picture with Santa Claus and enjoy a treat.
At the end of the night, students will help box up the family’s new Christmas tree so they can take it home. The following day, student body officers will hand-deliver the donated gifts to each family.
Some of Bird’s favorite memories of past festivals are seeing the families’ reactions to their tree and gifts.
“It’s so fun, I love it,” she said. “They’re just so grateful. It’s really cool.”
Over the past 26 years, many families and countless students have enjoyed coming together in a spirit of service. Enhancing school unity was one of the original goals of the festival, said Kami Loth Perkins, one of the student body officers who helped organize the first event in 1992.
“We (the class of 1993) wanted to do something we thought would be a lasting legacy for the school,” Perkins said. “I talked to the principal at the time and said, ‘We’ve got this great idea; we think it would pull all of the students together.’”
According to Perkins, the principal was skeptical about how much student participation the festival would get, but he approved the idea anyway. The festival turned out to be a success — the high school was able to sponsor several families that first year, and it became a lasting tradition.
“It started out as a great idea, a morale builder to bring people together at school, and it has grown year after year,” Perkins said. “We had no idea it would get as big as it did or inspire so many people. … I have to be realistic, what we started was just what we started — so many other advisors and kids and business owners have run with it.”
Not everything went smoothly that first year. Back then, there were no regulations on how tall the trees should be, and Perkins laughed as she recalled how many of the trees had to be trimmed to fit inside the benefiting families’ homes.
“We had real trees, and they were actually too big for the homes and apartments so we were out cutting them down with hand saws,” she said. “So there was a bunch of teenagers with hand saws trying to cut off as much as they could to get the trees to fit. Also, by the time they were delivered, the trees were all dry and dead. … Now … there’s a list of dimensions for the trees and they have to be artificial. … They just learned from year to year.”
John Olson was the student government’s teacher advisor for that first festival in 1992. He believed in Perkins’ idea and helped the student officers pull the festival together in a short amount of time. After the Christmas of 1992, Olson went on to help organize 34 more festivals.
Perkins credited Olson with keeping the tradition alive.
“John Olson … was fabulous,” she said. “He was game to let us try anything; he let the students take off with leadership and creativity. He kept the tradition going for decades. Bill Hogan was the other one that did a lot with it as well.”
Olson retired from teaching a few years ago, but he stayed part-time to help train a new teacher advisor in organizing various student events, including the Winter Tree Festival. This is Olson’s first year watching the festival take shape from the sidelines.
“I never would’ve given it up if I wasn’t going to retire; that’s my baby,” he said. “I didn’t want to give it up, but when you’re not going to be at school you’ve got to give it up. I loved it. There were a lot of late nights and a lot of late drives home to Vernon, but it was so worth it. I love those (high school) kids.”
Olson’s favorite memories of past festivals have come from watching his students show their trees and gifts to the benefiting families.
“Just seeing the joy on students’ faces, seeing little kids hugging high school kids and parents with tears in their eyes saying, ‘Thank you — without you we wouldn’t have had a Christmas —’ that puts something into a kid’s heart,” he said. “That’s probably my greatest memory; just seeing how this program has helped kids grow into men and women that are going to give back to the community.”