In its 34th Year, the Festival of Trees & Lights has Become a Holiday Tradition with Dramatic Impact

According to Iowa historians, the first Christmas tree was set up in Des Moines by the Neumann family, nine-generations ago at a location near what would eventually become the city center. The Neumanns were a family of German immigrants who arrived on the frontier in covered wagons and made a life on the prairie, working in the family’s bakery business. As winter came, the days drew shorter and the darkness and cold seemed to discourage customers from visiting the bakery. Christmas trees were still relatively unknown in the rest of the world and had only recently begun popping up in the Christmas markets in Germany. There was a rumor circulating that Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert, had set up a tree in Windsor Castle, but whatever the source, the Neumanns were inspired to bring this new holiday celebration to Iowa.

So, on a cold, dark December night, the family came together to start a new tradition. Hours later, the tree had been covered in ribbons and candles, and topped with a star that had been fashioned from a shiny baking sheet. Candlelight spilled out onto the street, creating a sense of hope and excitement for the future in the midst of a dark time of year.

In the generations that followed, the Christmas tree became central to countless family traditions, representing many different things to many different families. However, no tradition is more profound or important than the trees that are decorated during the Blank Children’s Hospital “Festival of Trees and Lights” in Des Moines.

Since the event began 34 years ago, thousands of trees have been decorated as part of the annual event, which has raised more than $8.7 million dollars to support pediatric services across Iowa.

“People decorate trees for all sorts of reasons,” said Brenna Finnerty, Development Director for Blank Children’s Hospital. “Some of the trees are done by families who want to share a meaningful holiday activity together, while others are corporate teams that come together to give back to our community.”

“The best part about the event is how it helps people come together to both heal from loss and celebrate life,” said Finnerty. “Some of the most special trees are those that have been created by friends and family members as a memorial for children for whom there was no cure.”

Last year, a tree adorned with maps provided a memorial for Josh Becker, a former patient at Blank who passed away, but whose legacy is still with us.

“The inspiration for the tree came from Josh’s love of collecting and reading maps,” said Mark Becker, Josh’s dad. “Wherever Josh traveled and with whomever he was with, he felt at home. There were never strangers, just friends he hadn’t met yet.”

“It was our hope that the tree would remind viewers that home is about the people and hearts you spend time with and not merely a physical location. While Blank was not Josh’s house, it became home due to the wonderful staff and comfort provided during his stay.”

To celebrate Josh’s life, his family decorated his tree with maps that he had collected from around Iowa, the United States, and foreign countries. Josh collected maps from his own travels, and received additions to his collection from friends, family, and even strangers who had learned about his map collection.

“He enjoyed looking through the maps and plotting routes to find people and fun places,” his father said. “Places with people we could call home.”

During Josh’s stay at Blank, he enjoyed navigating and learning his way around the maze of hospital floors and hallways.

“Navigating our safari adventures with hospital maps was a fun way to pass the time during his stay. As he was able, friends and family would go with him as he explored his way finding new places and new friends. Not only was this entertainment, but it promoted healing as it motivated Josh to move and provided a will to read, think, and spend time with others.”

“While we miss him, he is still home,” said Josh’s sister, Alyssa.

The Festival of Trees & Light has supported pediatric causes at Blank for decades. In more recent years, Festival has supported the Child Life program and the Center for Advocacy & Outreach at Blank Children’s Hospital. Both programs are provided to patients, families, and community members at little to no cost, and no one is ever turned away for any reason.

“Child Life is an incredible program that provides Child Life Specialists to work with children to help reduce the stress and anxiety that many experience in hospital and health care settings,” Finnerty said.

Some of their work is quite technical, as the team explains medical procedures in terms that children, no matter their age, can understand. The team also helps children in the clinics, emergency room, surgery and radiology, as well as in the hospital.

Some of their work is also designed to be fun. “During the Holidays, the Child Life Team delivers gifts to all the children who have been admitted, as well as to their healthy siblings,” said Finnerty. “During the summer, they turn an entire floor of Blank Children’s into a traditional Iowa summer camp.”

While the Child Life team helps children throughout their health care journey, the Center for Advocacy & Outreach’s goal is to keep children out of the hospital. They create programs that promote safety and injury prevention, provide education on healthy living, and partner with other medical organizations for neonatal, pediatric and obstetric education.

“The work that each of these teams do is incredibly inspiring,” Finnerty said. “I can’t imagine working anywhere else. I cry every day. I love it. I think it’s the greatest place in the world.”

“And Festival of Trees & Lights is the best way to get involved,” she added. “Whether as a sponsor, a designer, a supporter, or a visitor, no amount of support is too large or too small.”

The 2017 Festival of Trees & Lights is scheduled for November 22-26 at Veteran’s Memorial Community Choice Credit Union Convention Center in Des Moines. For more information, please visit FestivalofTrees.com.

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