It was a Christmas tree "lighting" that took place about a mile away from the actual Christmas tree. But that didn’t seem to dampen anyone’s spirits.
A festive crowd gathered Monday night at Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s Lanier Park campus to celebrate the 29th annual Love Light tree. Sponsored by the Medical Center Auxiliary, the Love Light program benefits Hospice of Northeast Georgia Medical Center, which provides in-home care to patients with terminal illnesses.
People can give donations in honor of or in memory of a loved one, starting at a minimum of $10 for one "light." Donations of $100 or more are "star" gifts, and those of $500 or more are "angel" gifts.
"In each remembrance, there is also the gift of passing it on to help another person in need," said hospice director Teresa Warren, who spoke at the ceremony.
Though donations can be made year-round, the vast majority of people give during the holiday season. Last year, the program raised a record $185,000.
Warren said the hospice has served patients "ranging from less than 1 year old to more than 100 years old, and from all income levels. We see people struggling to keep the electricity on, and even some who don’t have food to eat."
The Love Light tree traditionally has been placed on top of the Outpatient Services Building, on the hospital’s main campus. But because of ongoing construction, for the past couple of years the tree-lighting ceremony has been held off site.
That situation will end next year, when hospital officials intend to plant a permanent Love Light tree in front of the new North Patient Tower.
"I hope you’re enjoying the warmth (indoors). Next year, we’ll be back outside, freezing," said Jim Gardner, chief executive officer of Northeast Georgia Health System. "But this was always intended to be temporary."
Having a permanent tree will spare hospital employees from having to search for the perfect specimen. They typically begin scouting throughout Northeast Georgia months in advance, looking for a healthy, 30-foot evergreen.
This year’s tree was discovered on the property of a convenience store on Ga. 365, near the Hall/Habersham line. The owner, South Carolina-based The Pantry Inc., agreed to donate the tree but declined to dedicate it in someone’s honor, as is customary.
So the Medical Center Auxiliary decided the 2008 tree would be dedicated to the volunteers and staff of Hospice of Northeast Georgia Medical Center. Hospice director Warren was selected to turn on the lights of an artificial tree in the Lanier Park atrium, which served as a stand-in for the real tree.
Prior to flicking the switch, Warren paid tribute to the hospice staff and volunteers. "This is more than a job for them. It’s a calling," she said.
Before the ceremony, the audience enjoyed a variety of Christmas tunes performed by First Presbyterian Church’s Chancel Ringer Quintet. The handbell choir was followed by student choral groups from Mount Vernon Elementary School and C.W. Davis Middle School.
After the tree lighting, Alejandra Arenas, a music teacher at the World Language Academy, sang "O Holy Night."
Becky Stewart of Flowery Branch and her daughter, Cara, attended the ceremony to watch younger daughter Anna, a Davis seventh-grader, perform in the chorus. It was the first time they had seen a Love Light program, and they were pleasantly surprised.
"It was wonderful, very inspiring," said Becky Stewart. "I think we may drive past the (main campus) hospital when we leave here and see the real tree."
Donations to Love Light are still being accepted. To donate or for more information, call 770-535-3394.