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Walking through the front door of the Monte Vista Hotel almost feels like a trip into a holiday storybook, as 26 ornately decorated Christmas trees fill the first floor. Each of the trees, which collectively recognize the “Angels Among Us,”  is decorated uniquely and with undeniable care.

Yet, as visually striking as Deck the Trees is this year - organizer Libba Fairleigh believes the trees are “the best ever” - perhaps the most impressive thing about the annual fundraiser is that its impact on the Swannanoa Valley can be felt long after the holidays are over.

The event was first held in 2011 when a former Black Mountain gallery owner approached the previous owners of the hotel, which was built in 1919, with an idea to brighten the holidays. Fairleigh began coordinating the event in its second year, when there was another important change to Deck the Trees — the Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry was selected as the recipient of all funds raised. 

"Every cent raised goes directly to the Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry Fuel Fund," Fairleigh said. 

The fuel fund has been offered by the Black Mountain-based nonprofit, which offers services and resources for Swannanoa Valley residents who need them, since it was formed in 1975, said executive director Cheryl Wilson. 

"It's one of the main needs for a lot our clients, especially during the cold winter months," she said. "They need help keeping warm and that's what the fund does."

Local businesses and organizations are given themes on which to base a design around. Stephanie Wilder, owner of Chifferobe Home & Garden on Cherry Street, has participated every year, Fairleigh said, while others like Camp Lakey Gap at Christmount have decorated a tree for each of the past six years. 

Once the trees are up, visitors can stop in to see them from 10 a.m. - 9 p.m., daily. They vote for their favorites by placing money in the box next to the tree. Each dollar counts as a single vote and visitors are encouraged to vote as much as they'd like. 

In its first two years as a fundraiser, Deck the Trees raised just over $4,300. It doubled its annual intake by 2014, according to Fairleigh, and raised $6,300 in 2015. 

"It became really popular," she said. "More and more people would come see the trees each year, but it really took off with the help of local sponsors."

With businesses like Black Mountain dentist Mark Kleive and Tyson Furniture Co. sponsoring the event, it brought in over $11,000 in 2016. 

"Adding sponsors and a gala really helped it grow," Fairleigh said. 

Last year, Deck the Trees gave $25,000 to the SVCM, increasing its total contribution to the Fuel Fund to over $52,000 in six years. 

"We're able to help more and more people thanks to Deck the Trees," Wilson said. "Without the funds we get through them we wouldn't be able to help those clients bridge the gaps and stay warm through the winter."

The fund provided assistance to 663 Swannanoa Valley households last winter. 

The seven-person Deck the Trees committee began planning the event in July. Members selected "There Are Angels Among Us" as the theme.

The trees went up the week after Thanksgiving and the exhibit opened to the public on Nov. 30. It will remain on display through the end of the year.  

"The theme this year has really resonated with the community," Fairleigh said. "There are trees that really highlight the angels who do so much in the community."

Dave Teske and his wife Kristi, owners of Kilwin's Black Mountain, have participated in Deck the Trees since they bought the business four years ago. The theme this year gave them an opportunity to honor their daughter, Shea, who has Down syndrome.

“Within seconds we both knew we wanted to do a tree recognizing people with Down syndrome,” Teske said. “Our daughter has Down syndrome, she's 10-years-old. We thought we could use pictures of people with Down syndrome and be a voice for them."

Teske has been involved with the Special Olympics for years, he said, and his time around people with all types of disabilities has left him with an informed perspective. 

“I've been around folks with disabilities and to have a child with Down syndrome, you appreciate them even more," he said. "It makes you want to be an advocate because my daughter can do great things."

A poem featured next to their tree states that "God sent these angels to teach all of us here."

"People with Down syndrome add such a value to this world," Teske said. "Unfortunately, a lot of the world doesn't think that, but most of them are better people. They have tender hearts and appreciate things more than the rest of us, who tend to take things for granted."

Teske is not only grateful for the platform that allows his family to raise awareness of the contributions of people with Down syndrome, he appreciates the opportunity to place such an important message in front of the people who come to see the trees. 

"I hope this will make people think about who the angels are in their lives," Teske said. "(The theme) is such a good holiday message and I want people to come away with something that challenges them to think about what's important."

Deck the Trees is an event that "people can rally around," he continued. 

"Ultimately it's something that helps other people," Teske said. "An event like this really shows how much this community cares and that so many people in it are willing to step up and help those who need help."

Kilwin's tree is not the only one with a powerful message.

The SVCM tree recognizes 34,000 hours of 323 volunteers over the past year, which equates to nearly $850,000 in community contributions. 

"This community is filled with angels who walk through our doors everyday," Wilson said. "We help a lot of families every year and those families appreciate the help. This event is important because it allows us to help more."

The SVCM tree also recognizes seven volunteers who passed away in 2018. 

The Black Mountain Fire Department tree celebrates the service of its firefighters. Ornaments featuring the faces, names and years of service of each member of the department are displayed prominently. The tree is topped with a white BMFD helmet. 

Girl Scout Troop 2498, which sold over 12,000 boxes of cookies last winter, is represented with a tree containing handmade decorations. The Black Mountain Home for Children has an entry as well. 

Two trees, one by the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association Chapter 15-7 and another by Paws & Effect, pay homage to veterans. 

The tree that generates the most votes is one of two winners. A team of three judges determine the tree that best adheres to the theme. 

"I hate using the word 'winner,'" Fairleigh said. "All of them are winners because they bring attention to a great cause and generate money for the Fuel Fund." 

Wilson believes the event is a true representation of the Swannanoa Valley. 

"This community really has a way of coming together to help," she said. "The needs are great and always growing, but this is such a loving and giving place."

She's thankful for the contributions from the event and encourages the public to go see the trees and vote for their favorites. 

Fairleigh agrees that Deck the Trees is an example of the community's giving nature, but the fundraiser shows another unique aspect of the Swannanoa Valley, she said. 

"This is a really artistic, talented and giving place," she said. "I feel like Deck the Trees really shows what Black Mountain and Swannanoa are all about. It really showcases the talented people we have living here."

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