Taking root: A Christmas tree forest keeps growing at St. Vincent's Villa in Timonium

In December each year, the rear half of the gymnasium at St. Vincent’s Villa in Timonium is filled with more than 100 Christmas trees. Children can wander through a maze of ornaments and inflatable snowmen, gift-wrapped boxes and giant stuffed teddy bears. Santa Claus will visit. So will the families of children staying at the residential treatment center.

For the children at the facility, who range from as young as 5 to as old as 14, the start of the holiday season marks a special time, one where staff members have one goal: Let kids be kids.

“A lot of them have tried to be so mature and so responsible, because that’s what they were left to do,” said Trisha Ey, recreational therapist at St. Vincent’s. “My main goal is to let them be children.”

The children at St. Vincent’s have a lot of grown-up problems, staff say. The 80-bed facility treats children with mental health problems so severe they cannot safely be cared for in their communities. All have experienced trauma. Many experience depression or anxiety, many are growing up in poverty, and nearly all of them feel the pain of being separated from their families, or not having a family they can go home to.

During the holidays, the pain of that separation intensifies, said Bev Butler, a family support specialist who contracts with St. Vincent’s.

“It’s very difficult to place your child outside the home — at the holidays, it’s like tenfold,” Butler said. “You always feel guilty, even if you’re doing the right thing, you still feel guilty.”

To help make the holidays easier, St. Vincent’s staff members host so many holiday activities through December they can barely keep count. Associate administrator Michael Dunphy listed a couple: breakfast with Santa, a holiday singalong.

“All of this is possible because people in the community stepped forward to provide assistance,” Dunphy said.

On Christmas morning, St. Vincent’s children will open donated gifts — especially the children who cannot return home. Ey said about 20 to 40 children will spend Christmas in the facility.

And, donated gift cards will allow children to spend the week between Christmas and New Year’s experiencing activities for the first time – a movie, bowling, a trip to the National Aquarium.

The holiday season, Dunphy said, is also the time of year when St. Vincent’s collects donations to sustain it for the rest of the year. The donations, he said, allow St. Vincent’s to buy clothing for the children in their care, who often arrive with only a bag of clothes that no longer fit. Holiday donations buy birthday gifts and school supplies. They stock the on-site food pantry the facility provides for families, and fund transportation for families who may not have a car to visit their children.

Art Modell, the late owner of the Baltimore Ravens, and his wife, Pat, were among the biggest donors, he said.

Because of the Modells’ connection with the Ravens, students at St. Vincent’s get to attend a Ravens football practice each December. Though the Modells have passed away, their foundation sponsors a December Christmas lunch for families. It was the Modells who built the gym at St. Vincent’s, and the Modells who started filling it with Christmas trees.

‘They’re doing this for me?’

Jake Boone, a real estate agent who worked with Pat Modell, recalled visiting St. Vincent’s to plan the Modells’ 40th anniversary about 12 years ago; the idea was to celebrate the occasion at the location of their longtime beneficiary. Boone said they were in the gym when he asked the person in charge what St. Vincent’s did for Christmas.

“They said, ‘We put up a Christmas tree,’” Boone said. “I said, ‘Oh no, we’re going to have to do something about that.’ Pat looked at me and winked, and I said, ‘I’ll call you this afternoon.’”

The pair schemed up 17 trees of various heights, Boone said. The next year there were more trees, all donated. One year later, the display grew again. Today, Boone, who designs the layout of the Christmas forest, estimated there could be as many as 150 trees.

“It’s like a winter wonderland,” Dunphy said of the display.

“I’m told once it’s finished, all glittering, teddy bears everywhere, wrapped packages … when one of the kids has a bad day or a bad moment, they just walk them into the gym and it really soothes them, calms them down,” Boone said.

Between Christmases, the trees are stored in an old shipping container on St. Vincent’s grounds, said Mikael Kristiansen, volunteer services manager.

All those trees take an army of volunteers to decorate. Kristiansen said this year more than 200 showed up to hang ornaments and listen to Christmas music. Even with that crowd, decorating took from 9 a.m. until about 4:30 p.m., he said.

“It’s something volunteers look forward to,” said Ezra Buchdal, director of St. Vincent’s, noting that this year’s crowd of volunteers was the largest ever.

Staff try to keep children away from the gym during decorating, but sometimes they slip through, Buchdal said.

“A child came through once asking, ‘Why are there people here?’” Buchdal said. “We said, ‘This is for you, we’re doing this to make the holiday special for you.’ The kid said, ‘Really? They’re doing this for me?’”

That is what makes the trees at St. Vincent’s special, Buchdal said; unlike other regional Christmas displays set up for public viewing to raise money, at St. Vincent’s the trees are for the children alone.

Dunphy said his favorite thing about the trees is not how children react, it is watching them show off the trees to their families when they visit, saying, “Look where I’m staying right now.” Those kinds of interactions and relationship building are what the trees are really for, Dunphy said.

“The trees provide a wonderful backdrop to all of that, but it really is what happens next,” he said.

And for children at St. Vincent’s, staff said the trees mean something more profound: that someone cares about them.

“You’re going to have a good Christmas here,” Ey said staff try to show the children. “We’re going to give you a good Christmas.”

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