Decorators make trees shine bright at Festival of Trees benefit on South Whidbey

Kim Allen, Mary Ann Schille and Pam Stovel work diligently on tree ornaments for the
Kim Allen, Mary Ann Schille and Pam Stovel work diligently on tree ornaments for the 'Polar Express' Christmas tree they are creating for Big Brothers Big Sisters Festival of Trees on Dec. 4.
— image credit: Patricia Duff / The Record

They come with their flocking, their flugels, their popcorn and shells.They’re armed with bright ribbons, baubles and glistening bells.

Yes, they sound a bit like the Whos down in Whoville, but they are better described as the Christmas tree deco brigade.

It’s that time of year again, when Big Brothers Big Sisters of Island County pulls out all the stops for its annual Festival of Trees auction and gala. This year’s festival will start at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 4 at Useless Bay Golf & Country Club in Langley.

This Whidbey Island holiday tradition returns to South Whidbey for the sixth year. The entertaining formal event, featuring uniquely decorated trees and wreaths, is designed to brighten the holiday season while also brightening the futures of children in the community. All funds go directly to children’s services.

For the Festival of Trees decorators, Christmas starts in January.

Tree decorating experts Verna Lawsen, Jonni Reed and their team of tree decorators start planning next year’s creations just weeks after the last tree is auctioned off at the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Island County fundraiser.

Throughout the year, they attend trade shows to buy and collect unique Christmas tree decorations. And before you know it, it is the first weekend of December again, and their creations sparkle at Useless Bay Golf & Country Club for the Festival of Trees.

“The Festival of the Trees is a beautiful and festive occasion. The trees are always gorgeous with a constant stream of clever tree designers and craftspeople,” said Diana Conners, a long-time decorator for the fundraiser.

“When the trees arrive at Useless Bay Country Club, the atmosphere is brimming with excitement and creativity, and it remains that way right until the auction.”

Peggy Dyer, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Island County, said the dedicated tree decorators always create unique styles, which bring joy to the buyers for years to come.

“We end up having nearly 150 volunteers throughout the island who donate hundreds of hours toward the completion of festival. We are truly lucky to have such a dedicated group,” Dyer said.

Among this year’s decorative tree themes are the beloved “Wizard of Oz” characters, “Polar Express” from the classic children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg, “An Angels’ Orchestra” and other unique themes.

The creative process begins early.

“To begin with, there is a great deal of brainstorming,” Conners said. “I use various websites such as the White House Christmas trees and art columns, movies, books, etc. for new ideas.”

Presently, preparations are in full swing.

“My team of clever craftswomen and decorators are beginning work on elves, flannel pajama ornaments, and ticket chains,” she said.

Dinah Zapata, a member of the South Whidbey Garden Club team, has been a part of the decorating group since the event began on South Whidbey. Zapata is busy with decorating the “Land of Oz” tree.

“I have always been a fan of the Oz stories,” Zapata said, “and when I learned that it is the 70th anniversary of the movie, I began envisioning a tree with the yellow brick road leading up to an Emerald City tree topper. The characters are European hand puppets,and a doorway puppet stage will be included,” she said.

The Greenbank Garden Club also joins the fray, and this year the team decided upon a “Christmas Nocturne” theme for its tree.

“Our inspiration comes from twilight,” said Greenbank team member Annie Horton.

“Our goal is to create a tree that has been snowed upon and caught at just that moment of gloaming.”

Tracy Schultz, owner of Flowers by the Bay, has been a festival wreath decorator for four years. This year’s creation takes the theme of “whimsical merriment” for the home.

While a wreath is smaller than a seven-foot tree, Schultz still puts the same care and attention to detail into her festive decoration.

“We start brainstorming for themes or ideas when we go to the first trade show in January,” she said. “It’s a wonderful event and a fun evening to be had by all. The designers and decorators put a lot of hours into the projects before they even start the decorating process,” Schultz added.

“The most enjoyable part of the Festival of Trees experience is agreeing to one design and then achieving it by committee,” Horton said.

“Every year the experience is incredible. We are all working together to make the most irresistible tree possible to be offered at auction to raise money for Big Brothers Big Sisters. And there is always the friendly competition to make our tree the absolute best in the room,” she added.

“I love working on the trees,” Zapata said, “but even more I love supporting the festival because it is such an important organization for the children on the island. There are so many children growing up in single-parent homes who desperately need a big brother or sister to mentor them.”

“While the current economic environment is surely affecting everybody’s pocketbook, we ask that you remember the children in your community, and how the current times are affecting them,” Dyer said.

“You can brighten the future of these children, increase their odds of graduating high school, decrease their chances of using illegal drugs and even make them more likely to graduate from college,” she said.

The Festival of Trees evening includes a salad, dinner and dessert with wine included, plus one drink ticket for the bar. The live auction will be made even more exciting by offering items such as classes, getaways and art. There is also a silent auction that will offer a plethora of potential holiday gifts for friends and family. To make bidding easier, a selection of the auction items will be posted at for people to preview after Thanksgiving.

Tickets are $85 per person, but if purchased before Nov. 15, they are $75. To make reservations, call Dyer at 360-279-0644 or e-mail

To learn more about Big Brothers Big Sisters of Island County visit

Fun for the kids

The Festival of Trees also includes several family activities.

On Saturday, Dec. 4 at the Elk’s Lodge in Oak Harbor, Big Brothers Big Sisters will hold its Teddy Bear Breakfast which welcomes a score of new characters who will help serve pancakes and other goodies with that old favorite, Frosty the Snowman. There are two seatings; 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. Tickets are $6 for youths younger than 12 and $10 for those 13 years and older.

The public is welcome to browse the decorated trees before they go home to their new owners from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 4 at the Useless Bay Golf & Country Club and during a Community Open House from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 5 at the Elk’s Lodge in Oak Harbor.

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