REF: Years of Trees, Years of Giving

Lauren Koulouris ('22), Orbit Contributor

Christmas Trees.  Who would have thought that a successful source of funds for a long-standing educational grant program could come from decorating Christmas trees?

Another year has passed and the Reading Education Foundation (REF) has organized another successful year for the Festival of Trees at Reading’s own Parker Middle School.

In the past few decades, the technology that has been incorporated and utilized in our everyday lives has only increased, but it became the driving force to what started REF on its journey to help provide for the schools in Reading. The students’ education system has been one of the many areas that have benefited from technology. But as years passed, the technology that helps with our education became more expensive now that it has become the new normal in our lives. 

Almost 20 Years of Tradition

Almost 20 years have passed since the non-profit REF was put together for its original purpose, to fund the schools that needed more technology.  Now that the REF has grown immensely over the years, their general goal has shifted and expanded to more than just funds for technology. Its aspiration focuses on supporting the overall innovation and excellence in the Reading Schools through just about anything that the schools need to further the educational resources classes need. It has made it its purpose to enhance and increase educational opportunities for all Reading students by providing funds for projects. One of their proudest and successful fundraisers is the annual Festival of Trees that takes place in December right before Christmas.

This annual holiday fundraiser held at Parker Middle School has been going on for 19 years to benefit Reading’s students. People from all over town gather and participate in this event; parents, children, and many high schoolers attend. Board member Andrea Nelson and president Laura O’Neill eagerly explained that every year the REF sends out an email blast that goes out to thousands of people on their email list to promote the fundraiser.  A good amount of student and adult volunteers come to support by performing at the event as well as serving as storytellers who read for the children. Trees are decorated with different themes by donors from families, organizations, businesses, and schools, in hopes of raising as much money as possible. Those decorated holiday trees are then raffled off to winners. The money raised during this event always goes towards teacher grants in our schools. 

Funding for Innovation

Teachers and administrators can submit grants for any ideas they might have that avail students’ academic accomplishments. These ideas are written up and sent to the principal of the school for the principal to send to the central office. From there the REF has “a committee that works together to read through them and make sure it falls along with our mission of that out-of the-box thinking but also ties in with the curriculum and what the district wants you guys to be working on,” Nelson vocalized.

As a result of doing this, the committee then brings these ideas to a larger group known as the board for a vote. “We ask each other questions, sometimes they go back to the teachers and ask the teachers more specific questions to get a better sense of what they’re looking for, and then from there, we look at things. We look to see if we can partially fund something or if we can fully fund it. If we can’t fully fund it because maybe it’s too expensive or we want to allocate money somewhere else we might also reach out to PTO’s to see if they can help fund it,” Nelson explained.

“One of my first years we did this, the high school didn’t have the labs and so we worked with Reading Cooperatives. We got the bank to help sponsor it as well, so we kind of sit down and talk it through. Sometimes it’s harder than others and not everyone’s always in agreement, so what’s really nice is that everyone who is on the board has different backgrounds.” Fortunately, O’Neil also added that every year the education foundation has been able to support grants from every school in Reading so that all schools reap the benefits from it.

Defying the Pandemic

This year Nelson and O’Neill were excited to say that a lot of goals were reached, and many records were broken this year even with the restrictions of COVID-19. “We did break records for how much money we raised, and we had about 3000 people come through between the two days which was a really good number considering too because we weren’t sure what was going to happen with all the COVID, with rules and just how people felt in general,” stated board member Nelson. “We did make more than we’ve made any other year every year we improve with our amount, I can tell you it’s over $30,000.” O’Neil added in agreement, “It was more successful than ever. It was a record-breaking year patron number wise and dollars raised both were higher than ever we were very surprised actually.”

Due to the pandemic, the board members voiced their concerns about not having as many people show up then the years before, plus the thought that not as many trees would be donated this year. When the Festival of Trees was held on December 4th and 5th, more than enough people were able to attend in addition to having “84 trees donated this year,” Nelson announced. “We weren’t sure what we were going to get, given how busy everybody is and COVID and all that, so our hope for next year is to hit 100 because next year is our twentieth year. We already started to plan for something bigger but 84 trees were huge for us.” Furthermore, REF was able to work around these obstacles and produced some successful aspects from this year’s festival.

Volunteers Always Needed

Another achievement in the festival this year was the outstanding performance of the well-trained staff and student volunteers. Nelson expressed her appreciation for their help when she stated that there was a good turnout of students.  “I know many of you guys have to do your volunteer hours for different things, so we’re able to kind of help kids in the community do that and they were great at just helping us run the event.” The REF was very thankful to have help from other students and adults this year especially with the risks of COVID. Moving forward, the education foundation not only hopes to hit 100 trees, but they aim to see an increase in involvement from their volunteers. O’Neil further expresses this hope for next year.  “We need more volunteers. That’s one thing we have to really improve. We need a larger team of people helping. We would like to see more involvement.”

“The other thing that’s great is the performances we have a lot of local groups whether it’s from one of the schools like one of the middle schools, the high schools we had J and D come out this year too and do their dance performance as well. We had some private groups like kids that you know sang on their own and performed as well,” Nelson revealed. Over the years, the REF has also set up lots of entertainment for the festival. You will often find school groups serenading the event as people chat and walk around the trees. O’Neil added, “We love the entertainment, I’d say the entertainment has been a great addition.” Multiple student performers have volunteered such as RMHS Color Guard, RMHS Jazz Band, Coolidge Middle School Wind Chimes & Small Ensembles, Parker Middle School Performers. Moreover, the Reading Community Concert Band has also performed at the festival. Nelson and O’Neill are always blown away by the wonderful performers each year. 

A Future of Grants and Goals

Overall, going forward the REF wants to continue giving as many grants as possible. At the same time, they hope to get more volunteers to help the foundation out as they get bigger. “I would love to see it grow. I also want to get a grant from the Cummings foundation that is our goal. I don’t just want to give grants I want to get grants. I love that we support new teaching methods and hopefully, we can sponsor some creative things. I’m looking forward to getting back to you know new ideas,” announced O’Neil. For another nonprofit organization to be able to fund something big is one of their many goals for the future. It would not only give out plenty of grants, but it would also give a great opportunity for some of the banks or other businesses to feel more connected with the community

The REF has come a long way with the Festival of Trees and has grown immensely since it first started in 2001. Even though COVID hit, it managed to prevail and produce amazing results with this year’s festival. Its board members are more than ready for the countless years to come as well as excited to see what next year’s decorative Christmas trees will bring.