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Volunteers carry on Pat Modell's Christmas tree tradition

The pizazz of 157 decorated trees sends a joyous message as the doors swing open in a spectacular Christmas display at a children's residential treatment center in Timonium.

"It was so much fun for the kids," said floral designer Jake Boone, who continues a holiday tradition established at St. Vincent's Villa by Patricia Breslin Modell, the philanthropist and wife of Ravens owner Art Modell. After her death in October, a group of volunteers continued what she and Boone conceived as a holiday surprise party for the 105 children, aged 14 and under, who live at the Villa, where they receive continuing treatment for emotional and behavioral disabilities.

"We like to create as much of a family setting as we can," Ellen Torres, who is the director of program campaigns at Catholic Charities. "Our goal is to make it wonderful and magical for our children, who may not have experienced the traditional love and safety of a family unit."

The event has its origins when Pat Modell visited the Villa. She and her husband, Art, who brought the Ravens to Baltimore, were substantial donors to this children's charity.

"She asked us, casually, 'What do you for the children at Christmas?'" Before long, Pat Modell had enlisted Boone, who worked closely with her on event planning, to conceive a Christmas treat. Boone said they found two stored artificial trees at the Villa about six years ago.

"We felt, that is not enough. Soon we had 12, then 15 and now 157 trees," Boone said. "Although there is the big party, I understand that when one of the children is having a bad day, or having a melt down, the staff will bring them in and the trees take them to a different place. They have a calming effect."

Boone said that once people heard of their initial work, "Now we have three shifts working, so that when one gets tuckered out, another group comes in."

Over the past six years, the volunteer decorating event has grown to about 120 persons. Boone is joined by David Carberry of WMAR-TV and Patrick Heffernan of First Home Mortgage. Others responsible for the tree decorations include members of Jake Boone's extended family, donor Charles Reid, Hill & Co. Realtors, Celebrate Learning Centers, Boys' Latin School, the Brooks Financial Group, Table Toppers, Loane Brothers and a group of neighbors from Bolton Hill. The Modell family also continues its support.

This year's party was held Dec. 17. Art Modell and members of his family attended the event. On Christmas morning, the children at the Villa will have their own trees in their rooms, along with presents donated by employees of local businesses, including the spice maker McCormick and Co.

According to a spokesperson at Catholic Charities, St. Vincent's Villa "provides diagnostic, evaluation and treatment services to children whose behavioral and emotional needs require an intensive residential setting."

Catholic Charities' Kerrie Burch-DeLuca said that St. Vincent's Villa works with parents and other family members to help them understand the special needs of their children. The center's staff assists parents to "develop the skills and strategies that they will use to support their children back in their homes and communities."

She said the mission of the St. Vincent's Villa was "to provide hope and healing to children suffering from the trauma of abuse and neglect."

St. Vincent's Villa is a program of Catholic Charities Child & Family Services which provides "a wide array of behavioral health, child welfare, special education, early childhood and family-development services across Maryland," said Burch-DeLuca.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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