For 32 years, Kennedy Krieger Institute has created a whimsical holiday wonderland at the Maryland State Fairgrounds the weekend after Thanksgiving. Hundreds of trees, gingerbread houses, and wreaths magically appear to create one of the largest holiday extravaganzas on the East Coast. The items are then auctioned off to raise money to support the patients and work of Kennedy Krieger, which works to transform the lives of children, adolescents and adults with diseases, disorders and injuries impacting the nervous system.

But for many families and volunteers that design and donate trees for Festival of Trees, the annual tradition is about more than twinkling lights and a joyful way to kick-off the holiday season. It’s about healing and giving back.

Terri Daly and Barb Cavelius — and their dogs Milo and Molly — are volunteers with Paws for Healing at Kennedy Krieger and Johns Hopkins Medical Center. Because of COVID, they have not been able to bring their dogs back to the centers for over a year.

“For so many patients, the dogs provide a sense of normalcy,” said Barb, a former art teacher and cancer survivor herself.

Terri would frequently bring Milo to Kennedy Krieger to assist patients in therapy sessions. When patients were engaged with the dog, they were more likely to engage with the therapist and answer questions. Milo even sings on cue when a child needs a distraction.

“We’re ready to go back!” said Terri. “Everything is in order; we’re just waiting for the word.”

For the last three years, Terri and Barb, along with other volunteers from Paws for Healing, have decorated a dog-themed tree for Festival of Tree. This year, ornaments are handcrafted from shells or ceramics. Barb even sewed a tree skirt complete with fur trim.

“Decorating a tree is one more way we can help,” said Barb. “I became a volunteer with Paws for Healing because giving back helped me heal. The best way to heal is to help others. We have a tradition of decorating a tree every year because we want to give back.”

Giving back is also important to Kennedy Krieger parent Kathy Zuback. Her daughter Jessica has rare chromosomal abnormality and received services at both Kennedy Krieger Institute and Kennedy Krieger School. Kathy credits those services with helping Jessica develop social skills and have the confidence to start building her own soap, sugar scrub, and beard balm business.

It’s been a tradition for the Zubacks to decorate a tree for the last three years; although, in years past, they’ve decorated a small tree. This year they’re decorating a large, seven foot one.

Jessica chose the theme: Luca, based on this year’s hit coming-of-age movie by Pixar. It’s her favorite movie.

Jessica and Kathy walked around Wal-Mart for decoration inspiration. Jessica hand-painted sea shells and glass ornaments to look like water — complete with a healthy amount of glitter. The pair even made a tree topper replica of Luca’s head.

“Jessica has a wonderful memory,” said Kathy. “And she has such wonderful memories of Kennedy Krieger, especially Dr. Zabel. It’s been more than six years and she still talks about him.”

Making the Festival of Trees part of their family’s holiday traditions helps the Zubacks say thank you.

This year’s Festival of Trees is again virtual, to help keep everyone safe. The merriment can be experienced from the comfort of your couch on Friday, November, 26 – Sunday, November 28th. You can bid on the Paws for Healing’s Tree, Jessica’s Tree, or hundreds of others here. Don’t miss the Festival’s virtual entertainment surprises, online marketplace, or drive-thru toy drive.

 

Want more holiday inspiration? Check out Our 2021 Charmed Holidays Guide!