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Holiday of Giving

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Festival of Trees • $12
Cameron Art Museum • 11/24-12/2
Nutcracker Ballet • $20
Minnie Evans Performing Art Center
Ashley High School • 12/1-2, 3 p.m.
Combo ticket: $25

When Elizabeth Hester was a child she suffered the loss of her natural father. Being only 3 years old, she wasn’t sure exactly what was going on, but she remembers feeling quite isolated.

“My last memories are standing in New Hanover County Memorial, talking on a phone to him,” she says, “staring at a camera and no understanding why the adults were not letting us [be with] each other.”

There was no hospice or end-of-life care and support to help folks transition peacefully. While her family, including her 25-year-old widowed mother, made it through, it proved one of life’s everlasting hardships. Eventually, Hester’s mother remarried, and she gained an adoptive father who showed her an immense amount of love and support throughout their lives until he passed in 2011.

In 2007, Hester, proprietor of Wilmington School of Ballet, read about the closing of Cape Fear Hospice and LifeCareCenter’s annual fund-raiser, Cape Fear Festival of Trees. Wilmington’s 25-year holiday celebration was in jeopardy because of dwindling volunteers and lack of securing locations. “I had the instant sense that I was supposed to reopen it,” she says. “I remember sitting across the table from my dad and expressing it to him. He told me to ‘call them’ and, in his normal optimistic way, see what it would take.”

As fate would have it, Cape Fear Hospice was onboard with Hester’s idea of combining her “Nutcracker” ballet with the festival’s relaunch. And, so, at the time of planning the redux of this popular festival, she happened to be a hospice caregiver for her adoptive father as he passed. Fittingly, everything had come full circle.

Hester seemed to be exactly what was needed for the festival’s overwhelming organization, which required manpower and community support. Many of the resources were already in place. “I knew ‘Nutcracker’ could serve as a platform to re-open it sustainably,” Hester says. “It already had in place ticket sales, publicity, box-office management, and community support.”

It became her lifetime story to meld her passion for ballet and love for hospice work, and give it an all-in-one holiday appeal. Last year, Hester reopened the Festival of Trees in combination with the “Nutcracker” at Ashley High School. While a hit within the community, she knew it had to expand; they already outgrew the space.

“There was a tremendous amount of moving that had to occur at the end of school Friday and before school opened Monday,” she says. “The viewing of the trees also was limited to one weekend [whereas in the past the festival lasted a week]; however, it was a wonderful place to start.”

She contacted the Cameron Art Museum to look for ways to collaborate. She felt the museum’s spacious and welcoming artistic touch would magnify the display of the trees. “CAM had an interest from day one,” Hester says. Plus, they already had involvement as a decorator of trees in years past.

“We have current museum volunteers and spouses who volunteer at Cape Fear Hospice,” Kim Kelly, communications manager, reveals. “Additionally, there are multiple museum staff, members and volunteers who have experienced the good work of Cape Fear Hospice, so it felt like a natural relationship.”

Now, hospice’s responsibility is only to provide the naked trees for decorating and retain sponsorships, wherein all proceeds go back to the nonprofit. Slated for showcase in 2012 will be trees designed by the Arts Council of Wilmington & New Hanover County; Bangz Hair Salon; Black Arts Alliance; Cape Fear Literacy, Cape Fear River Watch; Coastal Carolina Clay Guild; Friends School of Wilmington; and Childcare Network. CAM, too, will have their own tree done up by their Museum School.

“It’s a continuation of a relationship and affinity with other nonprofit, community organizations,” Kelly notes of the festival’s appeal. Hester agrees. The trifecta of combined efforts has alleviated the massive workload of this caliber of event, while also benefitting every sector of our community, from medical to education to arts to dance.

“CAM manages all the heavy lifting and in turn gets the admission ticket,” Hester explains. “The ballet company gives a discount on tickets to allow for the ‘Nutcracker’ and Festival of Trees combo ticket, and in turn gets the cross-pollination marketing. We all as human beings who live and die benefit from the community getting educated about the service of hospice by creating a fund-raising tool that is low maintenance.” Essentially, the overhead is no longer greater than the funds raised for hospice or overwhelming to their resources.

In conjunction, Wilmington School of Ballet’s “Nutcracker” will be bigger and more visually captivating in 2012, thanks to new set additions, including sea creatures, a land of sweets, and lots of sparkle and shine. Plus, there will be a 100-plus cast featuring 60 local dancers, including the drama department of Ashely High providing actors and actresses for the party scene. “Kevin Green is directing a choir from Brunswick County high schools for the snow scene and the pre-show,” Hester explains. “The technical department of Ashley is providing all of the stage hands and tech support.”

There are five professional actors involved in the ballet thanks to the school’s latest partnership with North Carolina Dance Theater, which will use Wilmington as their sister city for performances. “It will create the first-ever professional dance company to call the Cape Fear region home,” Hester says of their 2013 season. “A guild is being created with open involvement to the community; the Wilmington Ballet Society Guild will hold a grand opening during this year’s Cape Fear Festival of Trees and ‘Nutcracker.’”
The kickoff event to Festival of Trees and ballet will take place on November 24th at Cameron Art Museum from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Folks will be able to meet event sponsors, tree sponsors, tree decorators and some very special visitors from the “Nutcracker” performance. “Elizabeth is bringing in some of her dancers, beautifully adorned with their sparkling costumes from the performance,” Kelly says.

Grenaldo Frazier will play holiday tunes on the piano, plus the Memory Tree will be open. The tree will allow visitors to write their own special sentiments and to hang them in honor of loved ones lost.

Child and professional dancers from the “Nutcracker” will return to CAM on Friday, November 30th, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., and prior to the 3 p.m. performances on December 1st and 2nd held at the Minnie Evans Performing Arts Center at Ashley High School. Ticket prices are $12 for Festival of Trees at Cameron Art Museum, $20 for the “Nutcracker” or $25 for a combo ticket to both events (available only on the 1st and 2nd; the festival runs November 24th through December 2nd).

Though the workload of reinvigorating the Cape Fear Festival of Trees was challenging, Hester say it’s completely worth it. “It was also an unbelievable emotional challenge,” she explains. “The event became a memorial for Dad and the story of my family’s journey.”

One that continues to evolve. In 2012, her brother’s firm J.W. Benefits is garnering sponsors for the festival, while her mother and daughter will help Hester decorate their own trees. “My fathers are both smiling,” she beams.

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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