When Montvale Elementary students began brainstorming for a theme to decorate their entry for this year’s Fantasy of Trees, the ideas ranged from dinosaurs to Dolly Parton. Visitors may need to look closely to find the purpose in their pine.
Their gingerbread men ornaments have feeding tubes, and the snowmen have oxygen tanks. Black markings on butterfly wings spell out conditions such as spina bifida, and nestled among ribbons are puzzle pieces, a symbol of the complexity of autism.
For members of Montvale’s Monday morning Art Club and peer buddies, who mentor students with significant disabilities, the tree symbolizes the beauty they see in classmates, friends and family members while raising awareness of disabilities.
“We wanted to be sure we shared our love and respect for these people with everyone else,” said art teacher Melissa Carrington.
This is the fourth year Montvale students have participated in the Fantasy of Trees, a fundraiser for East Tennessee Children’s Hospital that draws tens of thousands of visitors to the Knoxville Convention Center in the week around Thanksgiving and last year raised more than half a million dollars for the nonprofit regional pediatric center.
This year’s proceeds will go toward buying a Lifeline ambulance, which ETCH compares to a pediatric intensive care unit on wheels, providing lifesaving equipment during transportation to and from the hospital.
Montvale’s previous trees all have sold, and two years ago its Lego-theme tree was recognized for having the best use of color.
Principal Donna Russell said participating in the Fantasy of Trees is one way Montvale Knights learn to give back to their community and to make a difference in the world.
The Art Club was formed after they saw how much work was needed for the first year’s tree, which had a Dr. Seuss theme.
The majority of the ornaments on the 4.5-foot prelit tree are handmade by the students, using modeling clay, ribbon, painted puzzle pieces, and more. The fourth and fifth graders learned how to use a hot glue gun with care.
Everyone contributed to the project, Carrington said, and some stayed after school to finish the work.
Fifth grader Elsy Anderson, one of the peer mentors in Montvale’s Comprehensive Development Classroom, was a leader in the project and one of the first to suggest the theme. She’s inspired by her 2-year-old nephew Maverick, who has Down syndrome.
“He’s a role model to me,” Elsy said. “He’s so strong, and I love him to death.”