CLEARWATER – Christmas and holiday cheer are already upon us, and folks have the chance to get into the holiday spirit by attending the 28th annual Festival of Trees on Friday, Nov. 16 through Sunday, Nov. 18, at the Long Center, 1501 N. Belcher Road. Hours are Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Cost is $5 per person, free for kids ages 10 and younger, and on Friday, there is a senior discount, and people ages 55 and older may enter for $3.
“We’ve got about 150 trees and wreaths that have been decorated by local individuals and businesses and local organizations, and they’re going to be all for sale for the three days of the festival,” said Leslie DiPaci, development associate for the UPARC Foundation.
There will be trees of all sizes and themes, including the annual Mayors’ Challenge trees. This year, the mayors and city staff from Clearwater, Dunedin and Belleair have decorated trees to compete for the mayors’ prize. Expect a lot of tropical trees, as this year’s theme is “A Florida Christmas.”
There will be 18 vendors selling food and gift items all three days, so visitors can get a bit of holiday shopping done early. Entertainment will go on all day all three days, including live music from the band, Voices. Additional entertainment includes dance groups, school choral groups, senior dancers and belly dancers.
“There’s something to do, constant movement, something always going on,” DiPaci said. “Santa’s arriving on Saturday morning I believe on a golf cart because of this year’s theme. And he’s going to come in with some city officials and we’re hoping to have some bagpipes and make a little parade out of it.”
Santa is due to arrive at 10 a.m. on Saturday.
The festivities actually were set to begin on Thursday, Nov. 15, with a private party for tree decorators and volunteers, followed by an award ceremony. All of the trees and wreaths are judged. Friday night is the only ticketed event this year, with the Premiere Night Gala set for 7 to 11 p.m. Cost is $75 per person, and it will include libations, live music, fine cuisine from area restaurants, and a live and silent auction.
Saturday will bring a first-ever addition to the celebrations, with a food truck rally featuring many of the favorite local trucks.
Not only is the event a great way to start the holiday season, it is also for a good cause. As always, proceeds of the event benefit UPARC Foundation, which is a nonprofit organization that serves the developmentally disabled in the community.
“With all of the state budget cuts for the developmentally challenged in the state, UPARC is struggling constantly to try to maintain all our programs and services,” DiPaci said. “And all of the money that the foundation raises goes to UPARC to support those services. So it’s very important to keep our events in the limelight, that we get people here, that we raise money, because the programs are very important. Lives depend on it.”
UPARC provides for day activities, supported employment and residential care for its clients that serve a broad spectrum of needs.
“We have adult day training, and we have some workshops here at UPARC and clients can come down and work on different projects that local companies provide,” DiPaci said. “If it’s shrink wrapping packages, sorting hangers, they do all kinds of jobs here that they get paid for. It’s all piecemeal work where it’s paid by the item, and they do that here. We also have supported employment for those clients who want to work outside of UPARC. We help them find jobs, train for jobs, we show them how to interview for the job, we give them support after the start of the job. Many businesses locally support us in the project. We have people at Publix, Skyline Chili, Starbucks, and all kinds of places. We have one gentleman who’s been at Home Depot 17 years.”
UPARC supports the clients as they go, and many have become quite self-sufficient. Several have their own apartments now, she said. The organization also has residential care, with 19 group homes. Each have about six clients per home, and they are staffed 24 hours a day.
“They create their own families,” DiPaci said.
UPARC has an annual budget, and the foundation does all it can to help, though it ends up providing about 1- to 2-percent of the overall budget.
“It’s not much, but we do what we can, and every bit is needed,” DiPaci said.
This year’s goal for the Festival of Trees is to raise $125,000, she said.