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Every tree has a story: Festival participants give back, honor loved ones

SHARE Every tree has a story: Festival participants give back, honor loved ones

SANDY — Visitors saw an unusual sight Tuesday at the Festival of Trees opening night: a police officer standing guard in front of three small trees decorated in police memorabilia.

South Salt Lake Police Sgt. Matt Oehler stood in front of the trees — decorated and donated last-minute to the festival in memory of recently slain officer David Romrell — greeting people as they walked by. Some stopped to offer condolences and hugs, including some who were retired officers or had family in the force.

"When we understood that there was going to be a tree here tonight, I wanted people to know that this is still very real," Oehler said. "This is still very fresh for us, and it will remain so for a very long time."

The tree was auctioned off Tuesday night, with proceeds going to Romrell's family. Funds raised from more than 700 trees and other holiday items sold Tuesday night will go directly to charity medical care through the Primary Children's Hospital Foundation.

The trees and holiday decorations, although almost all sold, will be on display in the Mountain America Exposition Center every day from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. through Saturday.

Everything for the event was donated — from the trees to the thousands of volunteers' time.

Many who designed, decorated and donated Christmas displays to the Festival of Trees also dedicated them to someone special. Others had a personal connection to Primary Children's Hospital.

"I think most every one of these trees have stories," festival board member RaCail Hays said Wednesday. "That's why this place is such a place of feeling. People come together as family and friends and remember loved ones that have passed on or some that are living. It's just this way of remembering them and honoring them."

Hays decorated and donated a tree in honor of her friend Crystal Betterton, who passed away this year. She was a nature lover, so Hays decorated the tree with snow, pinecones and animal figures, and included paintings of nature scenes.

In addition to trees, the festival includes many smaller handmade items — such as wreaths, Nativity scenes, quilts, gingerbread houses and centerpieces — that were also donated and sold for the hospital's foundation Tuesday night and on display throughout the week.

Randy Yamasaki crafted a small, wooden Christmas-themed wishing well and donated it to the festival in honor of his granddaughter, Madalyn Yamasaki, who was born with a cleft lip and palate and has made "amazing" progress at Primary Children's, Becky Yamasaki said.

Becky, Madalyn's mother and Randy's daughter, is a member of the board and has volunteered at the festival every year since her daughter, now 14, was an infant.

"After she was born, there was definitely a desire to help give back to a hospital that's so wonderful," she said Wednesday. "This fundraiser is an awesome way for us to be able to help give back."

Some attendees come back year after year as both a fun tradition and a way to thank the hospital.

Melissa Hedin said she is grateful to have Primary Children's Hospital nearby so that her son doesn't need to leave the state for viral lung infection treatment.

"We come every year to support. We're just really appreciative to have this in our community," Hedin said Wednesday as her family walked around the festival admiring the trees.

Hedin's 8-year-old triplet sons were fans of the fun, kid-themed trees at the festival. Colin's favorite was a Pokémon tree, while Carson and Colby preferred one covered in Hot Wheels cars and tracks.

One of the most eye-catching and extravagant items at the festival was a Harry Potter themed Christmas tree — along with enough memorabilia to fill a small room.

Lauren Pont and a group of her friends made and collected dozens of handcrafted items throughout the year to create what looked like a Gryffindor common room.

The festival also featured several large playhouses.

Carolyn Bills, a festival board member and volunteer, purchased a playhouse for her grandkids — "Kalani's Surf Shack," named after Brigham Young University football coach Kalani Sitake, built and donated by BYU facilities. The teal-painted, heavy-duty playhouse, along with a navy blue one dedicated to Cosmo the Cougar, include portions made from wood that came from a tree that fell by the Provo campus' botany pond.

"We had been looking at these playhouses for two years, and I told my husband, 'I'm going to have one of these someday,'" Bills said Wednesday. When she saw that there were two BYU-themed ones this year, the dedicated Cougar fan had to have it.

Shona Peterson, a co-chairwoman of the festival, and her family constructed and donated a train-shaped playhouse. The "engine compartment" is hollow for kids to go in and play, and the whole piece has realistic train parts and even blows steam.

Peterson's first granddaughter was born with a rare heart defect seven years ago, and she was thankful for the hospital's surgery and treatment that helped her grandchild recover.

Her family has donated trees and other items regularly for several years, and playhouses for the past three.

"After being benefited from Primary Children's, we just can't not participate," Peterson said.

All board members and people helping to set up and man the festival are volunteers — around 30,000, Hays said.