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Nonprofits Go Tree-to-Tree

City Contest Revives Tradition

Once upon a Christmas time, thousands of people drove into the heart of Richmond to visit the downtown Miller & Rhoads department store. Some said its window displays rivaled those of Macy’s in New York City. Many a youngster had to be dragged away from the store’s iconic electric train window. Christmas was magical at Miller & Rhoads in Richmond.

When the store closed its doors in 1990, the spell was broken. Those gorgeous windows, once ablaze with light and tinsel, went strangely and sadly dark for twenty years.

Two decades later, downtown Richmond is undergoing major revitalization and the Hilton Garden Inn is the new tenant in the historic Miller & Rhoads building. Hotel manager John Cario says, “Since the theme of the Dominion Christmas parade was Holiday Traditions, it seemed like a logical fit to reach out to to help us bring back the windows.”

Leaders of the Christmas in Virginia team contacted twenty local nonprofit organizations and asked them to decorate Christmas trees for the windows. The charity Christmas tree contest that evolved sent over three thousand people to the event’s website to vote for their favorite tree. A panel of local VIPs was tapped for judging honors, and Lisa Schaffner, media celebrity and current director of public relations and marketing for UNOS, served as auctioneer at a January follow-up event that helped find good homes for the trees while raising money for the nonprofs that sponsored them.

Vicki Neilson with The Giving Heart, the muscle behind the area’s Community Thanksgiving Feast and other local projects to help the needy, says the contest is like a holiday gift – for local nonprofits and for Richmonders.

Lauren Cunningham with Richmond Metropolitan Habitat for Humanity, the first to commit to a tree this year, says the nonprofit is taking the contest very seriously. “We participated last year and we’re in it to win it this year!”

With twice as many charities and twice as many trees this year, contest coordinator Deborah Dunford says steps have been taken to make it as easy as possible for people to vote for their favorites. “We’re installing software to handle between 12,000 and 20,000 online voters through the season.”

Dunford invites families from Greater Richmond to attend the tree unveiling in the windows along Broad Street, slated for the evening of December 6. Visitors should expect a festive atmosphere, she says, as “Radio Disney will be on hand to entertain families who come down to see those famous windows come alive again. Hot chocolate and cookies inside the Hilton Garden Inn lobby will help ward off the chill of the night air.”

Online voting opens December 7. The winning Christmas tree and its nonprofit organization will claim a $1,000 grand prize and will be chosen using a combination of fan voting and the judges’ feedback. The winner will be announced at a culminating event, including a tree auction, slated for January 6, 2012. All proceeds from the auction go to each participating charity.

Dunford encourages families to put viewing the trees on their Christmas to-do lists. “Go downtown to see these fabulous trees. You can help revive a Richmond tradition, support some of Virginia’s finest nonprofit organizations, and create new Christmas memories.”

Tracy Scott is a self-professed baking addict and foodie who lives in Chesterfield County with her husband and two kids. She managed the calendar and handled social media for RFM before moving on to the corporate world.
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