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Community corner: Trees of Life, a local tradition

By Drew Johnson

You’ve seen the trees around Vicksburg, Schoolcraft, and Climax. They pop up towards the end of November and are filled with ornaments and names of loved ones — ornaments and names that represent a donation to South County Community Service’s annual Trees of Life campaign. But did you know that they also help support low-income families during the holidays and represent a lifeline for our neighbors who need help with food, housing, and transportation (and more) throughout the year?

I talked this month with Danna Downing, former executive director at SCCS, about the history of the fundraiser. It’s gone through a few changes — many more than I knew about — to get to where it is today. “A long time ago, real Christmas trees and lights were involved in Oswalt Park and in the community center,” Danna said. “But space and visibility were a challenge for fundraising. SCCS staff did some brainstorming and decided to try placing wooden trees on the outside walls of the agency and create handmade ornaments for community members to purchase.” Freestanding trees came after that, which allowed us to place trees in Schoolcraft and Climax — areas that we provide services for but don’t have as much of a physical presence.

Danna also told me about how the holiday traditions we put on for our families began: “At that same time, staff and volunteers committed to surveying holiday recipients to get their input about what could be done to better meet a family’s unique needs for a successful holiday season. As a result, changes and additions were made based on feedback from SCCS families. The end goal was to make the holidays more enjoyable and relaxed for donors and recipients alike.” Using that survey data, Danna and her team went to work building holiday programming that continues to this day — we continue to separate parties by age group (families and senior), allow families to meet the people sponsoring their kids for gifting, and respect the privacy of everyone involved. “We wanted to make it like a real Christmas that they were in charge of,” Danna said, “and we wanted to make it more family-like.”

This year Trees of Life continues to evolve. We’ll have trees at the Vicksburg High School, Vicksburg Train Depot, Schoolcraft Ladies Library Association, Lawrence Memorial Library in Climax, and will add for the first time a special Business Sponsor Tree outside of our building at 606 North Spruce Street in Vicksburg. The Lawrence Memorial Library will also host our “kickoff event” — feel free to stop in on December 7 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. where I’ll be taking donations, answering questions, and talking about SCCS and what we do in the community!

When I asked Danna why Trees of Life is so popular, she said that from a practical perspective it’s a great gift for far-flung families — many of our donations come from people who want to give gifts in honor of someone and want to be able to show the recipient what good work comes from their present. She also said that it “demonstrates the spirit of the holidays.”
I couldn’t agree more.

Drew Johnson lives in Kalamazoo and is the Director at South County Community Services. He has a small quarter acre homestead with chickens, bees, and hops (and more!), a wonderful wife, and three energetic children. He can be reached at 649-2901 or

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