Branching out; Fund-raiser: Kennedy Krieger's 10th anniversary Festival of Trees is its biggest yet. The more than 100 professionally decorated Christmas trees will provide seed money for the medical programs that benefit the institute's children.


You won't hear any mooing when you step into the Cow Palace at the Maryland State Fairgrounds this holiday weekend. Instead, there'll be the sounds of jingle bells and Christmas carols, the magic of thousands of brightly twinkling lights and sparkling ornaments, and the spicy aroma of hot cider and gingerbread.

The Festival of Trees, a major fund-raising event for the Kennedy Krieger Institute, is 10 years old. And this year's celebration of a decade of family fun promises to be bigger and better than ever, says Maria Gamble, the festival's coordinator and assistant director of development at Kennedy Krieger, a comprehensive resource for children with disabilities. "The size of the festival has more than doubled," explains Gamble. "The first year back in 1990 we had under 50 decorated trees; this year there will be more than 100."

Though the focal point of the festival, which started yesterday and continues tomorrow through Sunday, is a collection of spectacular trees and wreaths decorated by designers, artists, florists, businesses, schoolchildren, Scout troops and others, the event also features more than 130 vendors offering specialty gifts such as holiday decorations, jewelry, handmade crafts, blown glass, gourmet food items and children's clothes.

Continuous entertainment -- from choirs and storytellers to dancers and puppet shows -- contributes to the holiday spirit. There's also a sports area with games and prizes, and both children and adults can take a ride on an antique carousel or explore the 1,600 square-foot model train garden. Of course, you'll also get to meet Santa Claus.

And, remember, it's all for a good cause.

Since 1990, the Festival of Trees has raised more than $3 million for patient programs and research projects. The Kennedy Krieger Institute annually cares for more than 10,000 children and adolescents with disabilities resulting from disorders of the brain. In addition to providing inpatient care in the 63-bed specialty hospital, the institute has multiple day treatment, outpatient and home-based services. "The money helps recruit new people and new programs," says Dr. Gary Goldstein, a neurologist and president of the Kennedy Krieger Institute. Dr. Goldstein considers the money raised through the annual tree festival "launch money" that helps a program get started and then become competitive for financial grants.

The Kennedy Krieger children are the reason Kathy Berkowitz decorated a tree for the first festival in 1990 and the reason she's returned to the task every year since. While hanging handmade ornaments that tell the story of the festival's decade on a 12-foot tree, she reminisced about previous events. "The first tree I decorated was called "Jeweltide Greetings," remembers Berkowitz, an interior designer for Alexander Baer. "It was trimmed with huge clusters of balls decorated with jewels and garlands of pearls and rubies."

About five years ago, Berkowitz won the grand prize for her design of Santa Claus pulling a tree down the chimney. "We built a big roof and the entire design was animated . . . it was my favorite entry," she says.

This year Berkowitz is in charge of decorating the Kennedy Krieger tree that greets visitors immediately upon entering the festival.

The 12-foot tree, perched atop a mountain of "snow," is surrounded by four smaller trees. The ornaments, oversized cardbox balls and stars containing festival memorabilia, were handmade by Berkowitz and her crew, which includes her daughter, Melissa Slayton, husband, Bill, and 4-year-old grandson, Brandon.

Walk past the Berkowitz tree display and follow a path, bordered by antique lights and decorated with garlands and bows, that leads to the Christmas village -- a winter wonderland where wreaths adorn doors and windows of village shops and decorated trees are clustered around the village square.

Take time to examine each theme-decorated tree. Orioles and birdhouses are perched on branches, and a giant baseball and bat rest against the trunk of the Baltimore Orioles' entry, "No Place Like 'Home'."

A tree trimmed in shells, boats, fishermen, sea creatures and a blinking lighthouse as the tree top was created by employees of the Baltimore Life Company. "Our logo is a ship, so we decided on a nautical theme," explains Donna Topper of the company's investment department. About 15 employees worked on the design, all eager to volunteer for the children at Kennedy Krieger.

One of them, Mary Jo Hollander, had a special reason for volunteering: "My neighbor's son, 14-year old Cal Lake, attends Kennedy Krieger -- this is one way I can help him," she says.

Across the village square, Laura Boursalian and Bob Myers are putting finishing touches on the Boy Scouts entry, a tree laden with merit badges, tin cups, sleeping bags, lanterns and Garfield, the mascot for the Cub Scouts.

All trees and wreaths are priced and ready for purchase. Kennedy Krieger Institute will pack up trees and deliver to the buyers' home or place of business, says Gamble.

The Festival of Trees takes up 64,000 square feet of the Cow Palace. More than 1 million lights illuminate this year's festival. Add to that at least 20,000 ornaments, 122 hand-made gingerbread houses, 5,400 candy canes, 6,000 linear feet of cotton batting (i.e. snow), 3,000 phone calls to Santa on 10 "Claus Communications" lines, and a record number of entertainment acts -- 40 acts with a total of 611 performers for 25 hours of entertainment -- and you have the ingredients for a festival that is expected to attract about 35,000 visitors and raise $500,000.

At the core of the festival are more than 800 volunteers who help during the planning and setup stages, staff three daily shifts during the four-day event, and dismantle afterward, explains Cathy Schreiner, a market research analyst for BGE and the festival's volunteer coordinator for the past nine years.

Throughout the year, Schreiner keeps volunteer information on a database and sends out letters soliciting help in September. "Most volunteers return year after year," says Schreiner.

Donald Kohlhafer, senior vice president for health care banking at the Bank of America, has been a volunteer at every festival, not only because his company is a major sponsor, but because he realizes that the Kennedy Krieger children need his help. "Fundamentally, the Kennedy Krieger Institute offers a unique health care program . . . unfortunately most people don't even realize what we have right here in our own backyard."

He adds that he gained a greater appreciation for the work Kennedy Krieger does when he became a parent. "Nothing like watching two healthy children running around and then seeing the less fortunate. . . . the least I can do is lend a helping hand. The festival is just a good cause, the right cause."

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