For many, 2020 can’t end fast enough as the coronavirus pandemic has ruined just about everything including but not limited to attending sporting events, concerts, the theatre and movies, hosting large gatherings, graduations, proms and other school-related activities, and fundraisers.
It’s the last item on the list that’s of most concern to so many, as organizations throughout the country, here in Massachusetts and especially those local to the Middlesex East readership area rely heavily on fundraising to support foods pantries, clothing drives and other resources to assist those struggling financially.
One group impacted, We’re One Wilmington, gears up to celebrate its 10th annual Festival of Trees event even in the midst of a pandemic forcing organizers to make serious changes. The popular event, started in 2010, came about after former board member Caitie Weinstein suggested starting one after having seen it done in York, Maine.
According to Festival of Trees Director Becky McGrath, she “loved it and was amazed by how much it grew each year.”
The board loved it, too, as McGrath called it not only a “viable fundraising idea,” but another way “to bring the community together to celebrate the upcoming holiday season.” She added how “it gave us a platform by which we could support other non-profit groups in town by allowing them to fundraise at the event.”
Like most new ventures, We’re One Wilmington’s Festival of Trees started small with about 40 donations the first year. McGrath said their entertainment that year consisted of WOW board members’ children singing Christmas carols.
“As the event grew in popularity, so did the donations - in number and value. On a typical year we get about 117 or so,” McGrath noted.
The organizations entertainment grew, too, from children singing carols to two full days of back-to-back performances from the high school and middle school a cappella groups, bands and strings performers to seasonal musicians and musical groups.
“After our first year, we started hosting a member and donor social the evening before the Festival started - we probably had 50 attendees the first year and now we get upwards of 200,” McGrath shared, “We’ve worked really hard to find ways to include the members of our community in the event - through performing, fundraising, donating, baking for our bake sale, and through our angel giving tree (where they can take an ornament marked with a holiday gift for a child in need). It is important to us that the community feel a connection to the event.”
Of course, over 10 years, things inevitably change. In fact, McGrath described the donations they’ve received as a time capsule going back to a “Vote for a new WHS” tree before the town constructed the new high school and a recycling barrel when the town moved to a single-stream system.
This year, she expects many COVID themed donations. That’s because, sadly, the coronavirus continues to rage across the country and especially here in Massachusetts. The state even placed many local communities in the red category including Wilmington, Tewksbury and Woburn due to a high number of cases and percentage of people infected (though all three communities are now in the yellow category thanks to a change by the state involving the number of infected per 100,000).
But fear not, the Festival of Trees goes on, even in the face of a global pandemic. It will look different, but that won’t stop the generosity of Wilmington residents.
McGrath said they had to move the venue from the Villanova Hall to the Knight of Columbus due to “COVID-related usage restrictions of the hall.” Sadly, while they plan to set up the venue as usual, McGrath said they “cannot welcome visitors in person due to state guidelines of only 10 people within an indoor space at a time.”
The duration of the Festival will also change, according to McGrath, from Tuesday, Dec. 1 until Friday, Dec. 4, two more days than usual. She said they would photograph all the donations and place them online so people can still purchase tickets and enter for chances to win.
“Since our visitors can’t come to us,” McGrath acknowledged, “we will bring the Festival to them through ‘live’ broadcasts each night - most likely on Facebook - and possibly other channels. We plan to keep the Festival as familiar as possible, with tours of the trees, appearances from Mrs. Claus, our scavenger hunt, and even some pre-recorded performances.”
It appears, thanks to the hard work of WOW board members and Festival organizers, the popular event will be different, yet not that different. And although organizations may not receive the typical amount of donations, more than 100 each year, McGrath still expects the Town of Wilmington to show up in a big way, as they always have from year one through last year.
“As of right now we are about halfway there,” the director said about reaching that 100-donation goal, “and I’m still expecting more. COVID has freed up schedules and forced us to spend more time at home, which creates the ideal opportunity to focus on giving back. Donating to the Festival is the perfect feel-good quarantine activity, something we could all use these days.”
She added how the vast majority of donations don’t come in until November, so they have a few more weeks of collecting to do.
So, what happens to all those donations? As McGrath put it, “the proceeds from the Festival are used in part to help purchase holiday gifts for community members in financial need.”
Over the years, some recipients of these gifts “paid it forward” and donated gifts of their own. It’s all in the name of giving and celebrating the holiday spirit, which is even more vital in times like these.
“The positive energy that comes from being part of the Festival is like no other. Those involved, whether volunteer, donor, or visitor, get much more from it than we give to it. There have been so many stories wrapped up into each donation over the years,” McGrath remarked.
In truth, donations come from everywhere and help anyone. She mentioned a cancer patient allowed to come into the hall early because the Festival was one of her favorite holiday events and she needed to be kept away from germs.
“She and her brother set their sights on the ‘Go Big or Go Home’ tree which was a six-foot chair decorated with giant toys and giant candy. They loaded up the bucket with tickets. One of our volunteers overheard how much they loved the tree and decided to drop a few tickets in himself. As luck would have it, he won the tree. He gave the tree to the little girl and her brother. To see the joy on their faces when they came to pick it up was priceless.”
What about this year, what can patrons expect? No one knows, not even McGrath.
“To be honest, I’m not sure what to expect,” she admitted. “Even after 10 years, Wilmington continually surprises me with its generosity. So much has been cancelled and turned upside down this year that I’m hopeful folks will turn out big for this event. The bonus of a virtual event is that we can bring it to even more people! We plan to do everything possible to make this Festival a memorable one.”
They continue to accept donations until Wednesday, Nov. 25. Donations must be registered in advance at www.onewilmington.org.
For those interested, McGrath asks people to “keep an eye on our website at www.onewilmington.org for the latest information and links to the raffle once it is up. I also highly recommend following us on Facebook (wereonewilmington), Instagram (onewilmington), and Twitter (@onewilmington).”