Christmas in the Northwest is iconic. The Evergreen State’s lush, natural beauty decorates many a holiday card and our namesake trees have graced homes from the White House to grandma’s house. Locally, the state Capitol’s Rotunda hosts a breathtakingly elegant tree thanks to a thriving partnership between the Association of Washington Business (AWB) and state’s Department of Enterprise Services.

Deschutes River DentistryBut this beautifully decorated Christmas marvel is more than just decoration. For nearly 30 years, it has served as a fundraiser providing rural fire districts across the state with gifts and funds for their community’s neediest citizens. Since 1988, nearly $400,000 has been shared with districts across Washington to be distributed to residents and their families.

Capitol Rotunda tree lighting
Since the program began, the Association of Washington Business Holiday Kids’ Tree has raised nearly $400,000. Monies are distributed to rural fire districts for needy families in their area.
Photo credit: Brian Mittge / Association of Washington Business

Former AWB President Donald Brunell helped bring the project to life. He and fellow staffers “learned that there would be no Christmas tree at the State Capitol. One of the Capitol workers found a 30 foot blue spruce. We raised the money to have it cut and set up and raised the money to provide the lights and decorations. We then started a lighting ceremony and every governor since Booth Gardner has lit the tree.”

As with any project of this size, it has grown over the years. “The second year, we learned that rural families were often forgotten by Christmas giving, so we started working with the rural fire departments in Thurston, Lewis, Grays Harbor and eastern Pierce counties. We started fundraising to first cover the tree expenses and worked with Washington Forest Protection Association members to donate the tree. The Association of Washington Businesses actually added funds to cover the shortfall,” explains Brunell.

This year’s tree is a 25 foot noble fir donated by the Vail Tree Farm, part of the Weyerhauser Company, in Rainier. It arrives on Tuesday, November 28 at approximately 10:00 a.m. and will be decorated with a ‘Friends of the Forest’ theme featuring native Washington state wildlife and over 7,000 new LED lights provided by AWB.

Each year, someone is chosen as Miracle of the Year to light the tree at a popular tree-lighting ceremony. These have included deployed service members and their families, former KOMO news anchor Kathy Goertzen and more. In 2017, Secretary of State Kim Wyman will emcee the ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda at 6:00 p.m. on Friday, December 1 with one lucky family as the Governor is out of town.

washington state holiday tree
Moving a 25+ foot evergreen into the Capitol Rotunda isn’t easy but once finished, the Holiday Kids’ Tree represents the generosity of individuals and businesses state-wide. Photo credit: Brian Mittge/Association of Washington Business.

Decorating a tree of this size is quite a challenge. Ornaments are donated by many generous businesses and individuals. “Traditionally, we have lots of stuffed animals,” says Brunell. “Most go to Children’s Hospital, but some go with firefighters who give them to children who lose their homes, are injured or have lost family members.” This distribution started with fewer than a dozen fire districts, but “when I retired at the end of 2013, there were 16 and we spread to Walla Walla, Spokane and Grant counties.”

Ronald Ayers of the Walla Walla County Fire District #4 Auxiliary praises the program. “I want to thank the Association of Washington Business for their generous financial gift and bags of toys to help the needy in our community. Your money, along with funds from our Auxiliary, was used to ‘adopt’ six families consisting of seventeen adults and twenty-eight children. These families were provided food, toys and other necessities that they may not have been able to afford. All of the families were extremely grateful and I’m sure their holidays were much brighter because of our help.”

Doug Dodson, Chairperson for the Spokane County Fire District #3 Volunteers Association echoes gratitude for those giving as well as receiving. “The experience these firefighters share goes far beyond the gifts they drop off. It touches their lives and families as well. They often spend time caroling and handing out gifts and goodies to the local children in their neighborhood. Thank you seems far too simple to express how grateful we are for the opportunity your group affords us.”

holiday tree lighting, washington state
This year’s tree lighting ceremony takes place at 6:00 p.m. on Friday, December 1. Secretary of State Kim Wyman will emcee the ceremony with a little help from Santa and his elves. Photo credit: Brian Mittge / Association of Washington Business)

The Holiday Kids’ Tree Project welcomes tax-deductible donations of ornaments, stuffed animals and funds for state-wide distribution. Interested individuals, groups, businesses or organizations can contact Bonnie Millikan from the AWB for details at 360-943-1600 or bonniem@awb.com.

Read more about the Project on the AWB’s website where you’ll find photos and videos of previous tree-lighting ceremonies. The ceremony is free, open to the public and attended by families, news organizations, local performers and even Santa and his elves. Don’t miss out on this amazing opportunity to usher in the holiday spirit while helping neighbors in need.

That’s the true spirit of Christmas.

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