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The Christmas Tree Project


Superficially, our Christmas Tree Project events appear to be huge parties with colorful activities, great entertainment, delicious food, toys, and lots of surprises.  They are fun.  On the surface, that’s exactly how they are supposed to appear.

In reality, however, their primary purpose transcends the superficial to a level much deeper and more meaningful.  All of our events have been carefully crafted by our team of counselors and educators to create a nurturing environment which addresses children’s self-concept and loss issues.  Through the use of activities firmly based on the principles of the Expressive Therapies, the children are presented with essential life lessons in a format that is fun.

The cycle of poverty prevents children from achieving their full potential by undermining their own self-concept and ability to strive for their dreams.  Why try if you feel the expectation placed on you is that you are a failure?  The activities are designed to break this pattern by teaching the children skills that will encourage and empower them to strive to do their best throughout their lives.

Our military children struggle with the issues created when a loved one is removed from the family for an extended period of time and deployed to a war zone.  Their fears and sense of loss often damage the children’s concept of self-worth.  The subsequent pain can result in anger directed at or withdrawal from a world that is totally out of their control.  The activities are designed to help the children express their feelings and to re-validate the children’s own feelings of importance.

Our special needs children live in a world driven by a culture that fixates on perfection and symmetry and rejects the ill, the weak, and the different.  It can be a very cruel place.  The activities are designed to provide a safe place where they are appreciated, encouraged, and acknowledged by their community.  It’s a place where they can succeed.

Every event is composed of more than twenty different activities, each requiring fifteen to twenty minutes for the children to complete.  This timeline keeps the children fully engaged and receptive to the lessons presented as they participate in the activities.

Curriculum has been developed for each activity, identifying the purpose of the activity, growth areas, and senses engaged, and providing a brief description of participation.  The curriculum also contains detailed instructions for conducting the activity, the number of staff needed, space requirements, a list of props and materials needed, and suggestions for sponsorship.

All of the activities support our primary mission, to increase the children’s awareness of their own potential, build their confidence, and improve their self-concept.  While we strive to make all of the activities fun and challenging for the participants, all of them must reflect our core belief that every child is capable of success in life if they are provided with the support, guidance, and acceptance of the adults around them.


The following is a list of the major topic areas incorporated into the Christmas Tree Project curriculum.

  • Prevention – Gangs, violence, bullying, drugs, tobacco, abuse
  • Health – Sight and hearing, nutrition
  • Safety – Fire prevention, seat belts, stranger danger, water safety
  • Education – The value of education, staying in school, navigating the educational system, types of colleges and schools, grants and scholarships, job choices
  • Creativity – Expressive arts, self-expression, how to be a unique individual and a team player at the same time
  • Communication Skills – Reading, writing, speaking, identifying & expressing feelings, performing in public
  • Confidence – Self-esteem, self-concept, self-worth, identifying dreams and goals
  • Citizenship – Cooperation, helping, volunteering, rules, being a team player, diversity, respect, responsibility, commitment, integrity, patriotism
  • Community Awareness – Community resources



1.  CHRISTMAS TREE DECORATING – The children decorate the Christmas trees with ornaments they’ve made.  Purpose:  1) This encourages the children to make this their personal event by inviting them to place their own name and artwork on the tree.  2) Those who ride the bucket lift to the top of the tree learn that their perception of reality changes with their perspective.


2.  MAGIC OWL POST OFFICE, LETTERS TO SANTA – The children write letters to Santa Claus and then give them directly to Santa, who personally reads each one.  Purpose:  This deals with the children’s concept of self-worth by stating that they are so important that Santa is going to read their letters first.  Unfortunately in the real world, impoverished children are rarely at the front of the line.


3.  MAGIC OWL POST OFFICE, WILDLIFE EXHIBITS – The segue that transitions the children from the letter writing activity to the wildlife display are live owls, just like the ones that deliver mail for Harry Potter.  Purpose:  The wildlife exhibit introduces a variety of indigenous animals, focusing on safety and a respect for wildlife.


4.  CLOAK OF INVISIBILITY – This is a Chroma key green-screen special effects video studio.  The children learn about special effects techniques by appearing on camera and performing a variety of video illusions, from flying to becoming invisible.  A DVD of their performances is recorded.  Purpose: While teaching high-tech video special effects, a subject that will captivate the children, this activity encourages participants to try new things and to look closer at the world around them.  Sometimes things that look real aren’t real at all. For more information click here.


5.  CAPTAIN DAVE’S TREASURE HUNT – The children help Captain Dave find his lost treasure, and in the process, find some gold doubloons for themselves.  The items are buried in a sandbox that’s shaped like a pirate ship.  The children carefully sift through the sand to locate buried artifacts.   While challenging, the activity is designed so that every child succeeds.  Purpose: This activity encourages the children to explore life to find the hidden treasures it holds.  The lesson is that life’s true treasures usually require hard work.


6.  CAMPFIRE STORIES – Our camp staff greets the children and has them sit around our campfire in an area designed to provide the thrill of a real camping experience.  There are trees, shrubs, and a realistic (faux) campfire.  The children are given an animal-print pith helmet to wear while they are in the camp.  The storyteller leads the children reading a book, which is projected the wall behind the storyteller, so everyone can see the pictures and read along.  Purpose: While enjoying the fun of a campfire, the children assist a storyteller as a book is read aloud, building self-confidence while using their reading skills.


7.  HOLLOW TREE BOOK SHOPPE – This is a free book store with thousands of brand new books for every grade level.  The children shop through the store and get to pick books to keep for their very own.  Purpose: This activity stresses the importance of reading and encourages children to start their own personal library.  Many of these children have never owned a book before this opportunity.


8.  LAND OF I AM – The “King of I Am”, wearing his crown and royal robes, stands next to a 6-foot tall spinning game wheel.  The wheel is divided into 24 sections, each containing a positive word.  The children are invited to spin the wheel to see what they are.  When the wheel stops, they read aloud what it says.  Then, the entire class repeats the positive statement, confirming the child’s strength and potential.  Purpose: The focus of this activity is on improving the children’s concept of self-worth by having them identify a character strength they possess and then having all of their peers acknowledge that strength.


9.  ARTS & CRAFTS – Our volunteers provide the guidance and support necessary for the children to produce a beautiful work of art by experiencing an art medium and techniques that are probably new to them.  They are typically amazed at their completed artwork.  Purpose: Art is a tremendously valuable therapeutic tool that promotes healing by utilizing creativity to enhance communication.  This area encourages the children not to fear trying new things, to keep an open mind with new ideas/concepts, and underscores the fact that they are capable of doing much more than they may think they are.  For more information click here.


10. ELF BOUTIQUE, GIFTS – Christmastime is about giving.  The Elf Boutique contains tables piled high with gift items.  The children are invited to search the tables to find presents for their family.  Purpose: This area provides the children with the gift of giving, the opportunity for them to select presents for their families.  We believe the ability to give is a primary need, intrinsic to human nature.  For more information click here.


11. ELF BOUTIQUE, GIFT WRAP – After they have been through the Elf Boutique and have selected gifts for their families, our volunteers assist them as they choose gift-wrap and wrap their presents.  Purpose: Many of these children have never used gift-wrap.  This activity provides that experience and helps them personalize their gift items.  For more information click here.


12. VIP AREA – VIP stands for “Very Interesting People.”  The set design for this activity resembles a comfortable living room, complete with sofas and stuffed chairs.  The children are introduced to the VIP of the day and spend 15 minutes learning about what the VIP does.  It’s a very intimate, personal activity.  VIPs are selected from the community at large.  In the past, these have included magicians, jugglers, musicians, television celebrities, Governors, athletes, movie stars, doctors, and a host of others.  Purpose: This activity is designed to expose children to the wide array of interesting jobs, hobbies, and interest areas available to them in the community.  Often, impoverished children have a limited view of what life holds.  Our goal is to expand their awareness and provide them with positive alternatives to what they typically see in their neighborhoods.


13. UNIVERSITY OF TOMORROW – The Dean of the University of Tomorrow tells the children that he has reviewed their records and that all of them have been found to be smart enough to be future college graduates.  The staff explain types of schools, grants, scholarships, and why education is valuable.  All of the children receive a diploma, put on a graduation cap, and participate in a short celebration.  Purpose: This activity encourages the children to complete high school and to continue on to attain a college degree or vocational training.  The best way to break the cycle of poverty is to obtain the education and skills necessary to get a higher paying job.  Often, impoverished children are not aware that this option is open to them.  Often, education is not understood and, as a result, it is not valued in their belief system. For more information click here.


14. NORTH POLE FIRE DEPARTMENT, BADGE AND BOOK – The children are greeted by members of the Phoenix Fire Department and are given safety coloring books and fire department badges.  Purpose: This area provides the fire department with the opportunity to impact a large group of children with potentially lifesaving information in a very nurturing environment, where the children are likely to be very receptive to learning new concepts.


15. NORTH POLE FIRE DEPARTMENT, DRESS-OUT SUITS – The children get to try on a firefighter’s turnout suit and even compete with their teachers to see who can put on the fire suit the fastest.  Purpose: Another activity designed to provide the fire department to dispense life saving information and answer questions.



16. NORTH POLE FIRE DEPARTMENT, FIRE TRUCK RIDE – The children climb onboard a real, working fire truck and go for a ride at high speed, sirens blasting.  Purpose: Another activity designed to provide the fire department to dispense life saving information and answer Questions.  Use of seatbelts is reviewed by the firefighters.


17. NORTH POLE IDOL – The MC welcomes the children and invites them to come up on the stage and sing karaoke.  Those who wish to participate can sing individually, in small groups, or as a large group.  The stage has the recording equipment needed to create a professional music video of each performance.  Purpose: This activity helps the children build self-confidence and improve their self-image by providing them with the opportunity to perform in the North Pole Idol competition.  Everyone wins and is appreciated for their efforts.  For more information click here.


18. SANTA’S CRITTERS – Each year, we try to arrange for opportunities for the children to experience a variety of animals that they may not have previously encountered.  We have had a petting zoo, pony rides, horses, alpacas, deer, and therapy dogs.  While most of these exhibits are outside, you might find an occasional domestic or wildlife display inside.  Purpose: Urban children have limited exposure to animals, aside from domestic pets.  Contact with animals of these types is not only therapeutic but also helps broaden the experience of the children.  For more information click here.


19. CAFE RUDOLPH – This is the area where lunch is served.  There are televisions so the children can watch the activities in the North Pole and Cloak of Invisibility areas on closed circuit while they eat.  Lunch is supplemented with treats such as cakes, cookies, pies, donuts, chips, and bread provided by Waste Not.  Purpose: The Café provides a safe place where the children can take a break to eat and socialize, exchanging stories about what they have experienced at the event so far and wonder about what is still ahead of them.  It also allows us to distribute surplus baked goods for the children to bring home.


20. SANTA CLAUS, TATTOOS – While waiting for their turn visiting with Santa, the children are given temporary Christmas tattoos and/or face painting.  Purpose: This area gives the children something positive to do while they wait in line to have their picture taken.  It also provides our volunteers with the opportunity to positively interact with the children.


21. SANTA CLAUS, PICTURES – Each child is given two copies of the picture of their visit with Santa for their parents. Purpose: This area provides the gift of memories.  Constraints often prevent families from taking pictures of their children as they grow up. Unfortunately, time passes quickly and there is no way to replace those lost memories.  The Santa visit itself is a nurturing experience designed to heal damaged self-concept by addressing their self-image, self-esteem, and sense of self-worth.


22. SANTA CLAUS, TOYLAND – Each child is allowed to enter the toy area and select whatever toy they would like.  The area is well stocked with an abundance of toys, so the last child has as good a selection to choose from as the first.  Purpose: This area provides the gift of choice.  Often, during times of hardship, children are expected to settle for whatever they are given.  What they want becomes irrelevant.  This activity lets them know that their feelings do matter, that they have choices in life, and helps them develop the thought processes necessary to make good choices.  For more information, click here.


23. AMUSEMENT RIDES – We usually have several different types of amusement rides.  The rides may be mechanical, such as a roller coaster, the Sea Dragon ride, or a safari train, or they might be inflatable rides, such as bounces, slides, or an obstacle course.  The children may ride as many times as they like.  Purpose: Amusement rides provide a fun way for the children to challenge their fears.  They also provide a social experience where the children can share being thrilled with their classmates.  Many of the children have never before been on an amusement ride, so quite often this is a new experience for them. For more information click here.


24. PAPER HOLIDAY CHAIN – Each child attending the events is given several strips of colored paper that they decorate and connect into a huge paper chain that drapes across the venue.  Purpose: This activity provides the children with a historic perspective of who they are.  They build on those who came before them and others who come later will build on what they do now.  It also teaches that you can be an individual and a team member at the same time.


25. HOT AIR BALLOONS – The children get to help the balloon crew from the Arizona Balloon Club as they unpack, inflate, and eventually deflate and pack their hot air balloons.  Purpose: Very few of these children have ever seen much less been able to get close to a hot air balloon.  Most have only seen them in pictures.  This area gives them an experience they will never forget.


26. HERO AWARDS – This activity is an exclusive collaboration involving the Rotary, Lions, and Kiwanis Clubs.  Every attending school submits the names of three children they would like to see honored at the Christmas Tree Project.  The focus is on two primary groups.  First are the “damaged” children who are processing through some difficult situation.  These are children who might be dealing with illness, death, incarceration or drug abuse in the family, or numerous other issues.  The second group is the “shadow children” who feel unwanted and unacknowledged.  Each Club provides a large trophy for one of the children each day.  The trophies are presented in front of the entire student body.  When the “2008 Rotary Hero Award” is presented, the child is applauded by all of their classmates.  Purpose:  Nothing is stronger than positive peer pressure.  It’s amazing how fast self-doubt melts and is replaced with confidence during these award ceremonies.  This is a life changing activity.


The Christmas Tree Project is a unique grassroots program that enables the community to come together and address their own needs.  Hosted by Rotary, Lions, and Kiwanis Clubs working in collaboration, the project focuses on mentoring children facing extreme challenges in life.  The primary target populations are impoverished, homeless, and special needs children.  Secondary serviced groups include the children and families of our deployed military troops.

Full-day events are held daily during the first three weeks each December.  Each weekday, we serve a different school; all of their PK through third grade classes to participate.  On weekends, we serve the targeted secondary groups, such as military families, at-risk inner-city children, the Children’s Museum of Phoenix, municipal parks & recreation events, etc. During Christmas week, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, we make home visits to special individuals throughout the valley.

Our projects are designed to accommodate 10,000 attendees primarily from the poorest areas of Maricopa County.  The only way a project of this size and scope could be produced is for service organizations to collaborate and pool their members, resources, and expertise.  As a collaborative team, we are able to serve more with less required from each team member.