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Trees in the City of Trees

St. Al's Festival of Trees keeps growing

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Since its premier 24 years ago in a small warehouse with just a handful of trees, the St. Alphonsus Foundation's Festival of Trees has become a real happening in Boise. It's now housed in the Boise Centre on the Grove, and Jill Aldape, the foundation's director of major gifts and events said they've finally had to put a cap on entries. "We've run out of room," she said. "The most we can hold is 100."

The Festival of Trees is just one of the foundation's many programs and events. Aldape explained that the foundation is the "fund-raising arm of the hospital." But these projects and programs do more than just raise money for the organization, they reach out to the community to help raise awareness on a number of health issues.

Some of the foundation's ongoing projects include the Women's Health-care Fund which promotes women's heart health and awareness; the Secret Sisters Society which helps pay for mammograms for women who can't afford them. The foundation is responsible for Life Flight memberships, holds an annual fund-raising dinner to help fund an orphanage and hospital in Port Au Prince, Haiti and runs several memorial programs including Gift to Remember, Reflection of Life and Patterns of Life.

The foundation also oversees a number of events that help raise money for the hospital, including the Capitol Classic, a 1-mile fun-run for kids which has nearly 1,000 young participants each year; the Musician Physicians event in which a number of doctors get together and perform to demonstrate music's place in the healing arts; and then, of course, the Festival of Trees, an event that has become a holiday tradition and, for many Boiseans, marks the beginning of the holiday season.

At its most simple, the Festival of Trees is an event in which standard pine trees are decorated, then donated. They are then sold or auctioned off at the Festival of Trees gala. But there's much more to it than that.

Aldape explained that tree decorators fall into one of three divisions: professionals (which includes anyone who decorates for a living), amateurs and schools. The themes are twofold: traditional and nontraditional, leaving plenty of room for interpretation. All of the trees are sponsored, and sponsors can range from wreath decorators to Distinguished Benefactors whose $11,000 donation nets them a tree, two tables at the highly-anticipated gala and a handful of other perks. Tree decorators can either decorate a tree at home and bring it in, or the foundation will provide a tree, and sponsors can decorate on-site the Sunday and Monday before the gala.

"Whatever the sponsor spends on the tree [is also] their donation," Aldape said. The trees are judged by a group of "celebrity judges"—well-known people from the community—on Tuesday morning. "We then price the [decorated] tree and either sell it or put it in the gala night auction (on Tuesday night)."

When asked what is the most a tree has ever fetched, Aldape said, "Last year, St. Joe's decorated a tree which was purchased for $16,000. Two years ago, a Boise State-themed tree, sponsored by Boise State alumni, was auctioned for $16,000. It was then re-donated and bought again. The total for that tree was about $32,000. At the time, I thought, 'That's a lot of money for a tree,' but what's so wonderful is that the bidders who [spend that kind of money] know the mission at heart.'"

What is the mission at heart? Aldape said that "for the years 2004, 2005 and 2006, the foundation pledged $1 million to the new intensive care unit at St. Al's. For 2007, 2008 and 2009, we're pledging another $1 million to the new St. Al's Center for Advanced Healing (an acute care facility)."

Unable (or unwilling) to choose just one favorite tree from over the years, she did admit that she likes "the wacky ones," and she did particularly like "a papier mache tree done by [some high school] art students. I like the kid trees because the ornaments are handmade," she said.

When asked if they've ever had a tree that just wouldn't work, Aldape said, "If this festival has taught me anything, it's that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. One tree was a 'hunting tree' covered in pheasant feathers and bullet shells. I thought, 'No way is this going to sell.' There were six people on the waiting list. And there are times I love a tree, and it doesn't move."

What happens to the trees that, for one reason or another, just don't sell? Aldape said they are donated to charity. "We donate to probably 40 charities a year, like the YMCA, the Veteran's Home and the Boys and Girls Club. People will often buy a tree and then donate it."

And, so far, no tree has had to be rejected. "Last year, a Western-themed tree had a pack of cigarettes on it," Aldape said. "It fit the theme, but as a hospital, we couldn't promote that. So, we just took it off.

"It may sound silly," she said, but due to problems that have arisen in the past "we hold two tree clinics each year. We explain that trees can't be too heavy and ornaments need to be wired to the tree so they don't fall off during transport."

This shindig isn't called a "festival" for nothing. Beyond Tuesday's celebrity judging and gala, Wednesday offers a Senior Tea and an Iron Designer competition (in the spirit of Iron Chef) in which designers are given 30 minutes to decorate a tree. Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, actors portray favorite children's book characters during Fables and Fantasies Come to Life, and Breakfast with Santa has become so popular that it's now Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Family Day is all day Saturday, and Monday, Nov. 26 is a Cowboy Christmas fashion show.

Aldape said there's still time to sign up to sponsor/decorate a tree. So if you want to expand your holiday tradition beyond just viewing the trees—or maybe start a new family tradition—this just might be the way to go.

Festival of Trees, Nov. 21 through Nov. 25, Boise Centre on the Grove, 850 W. Front St. The gala is November 20, 5:30 p.m., $200 per person. Special ticket purchase is required. For more information, call 208-367-2759. For a full schedule of events and admission prices, visit SaintAlphonsus.org.

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