Shown above: Christine Bowen with St. Vincent Hospital; Andrea Stockton with Springhill at Home; Christine Spadafor; Susannah Weis Frigon and Erin Fessler—both with The Erie Community Foundation.

The vision and passion of one woman can start a community movement.

Mary Spadafor

Mary Spadafor

My Mom did that.

Her name was Mary Spadafor, and she passed away in October 2017—so that winter’s holidays were poignant and bittersweet. Let me tell you about Mom—and how her vision for helping people inspired generations of volunteers in my hometown.

But first, please watch the video above—which provides context for the story I’m about to tell…

Mom’s Vision: The “Festival of Trees” Charity Event

When you are a kid, you first know Mom as someone who packs your lunches and makes dinner, drives you to school and sports, makes sure you always have clean clothes in the dresser, and tucks you in at night. At some point—middle school, perhaps—you begin to recognize other facets of Mom. That’s how it was for me, anyway—I began to understand the breadth of Mom’s talents and interests. I witnessed the impact of her advocacy, kindness, and generosity.

One event I remember well when Mom showed me a four-foot Christmas topiary tree she had made. A volunteer at St. Vincent Hospital—where she served for 25 years—Mom designed and created this one-of-a-kind Christmas tree. Her vision? To sell the tree as an experimental fundraiser, one that would expand in the years to follow. To Mom’s delight, her tree sold immediately; a doctor bought it for $60—the equivalent of a typical mortgage payment in the mid-1960s!

Mom's Recipe For Successful Advocacy
Artist Maureen S. Walsh is a dear family friend. She generously rendered Mom’s first tree—the one that started a movement. Thank you, Maureen!

Building on her initial success, Mom made three trees the following Christmas. Then other volunteers and local businesses joined in. This now-annual fundraising event continued to grow—and in 1984 it was formally established as “Festival of Trees”. In time, the number of decorated trees increased so dramatically that this popular event outgrew several forums. The Festival’s new home became Erie’s spacious civic forum, The Bayfront Convention Center.

Today, Mom’s dream welcomes 10,000 visitors to this community family event—raising $100,000 annually for the Hospital and Children’s Miracle Network.

Mom had the vision of what Festival of Trees could become—and did.

There Is An Advocate In Each Of Us

My mother quietly modeled important life lessons: the responsibility to support and advocate for the poor, the disabled and the forgotten; to live a life of service and gratitude; and to seek and find the goodness in others. I witnessed first-hand the power of one woman to make a lasting impact on a community.

One lesson I’ll always remember from watching Mom and seeing how she inspired others to get involved and make a difference: There is an advocate in each of us.

As we begin a new year, what causes do you care about—and how will you advocate for them?

The Advocacy Recipe: Mom’s “Do-It-Yourself Community Movement”

As you know by now, Mom had many talents; among them, she was an extraordinary baker. She loved sharing her recipes, and so she would be delighted that I am sharing her “advocacy recipe” for starting a community movement:

First, have a vision. Believe in it passionately and you will see the possibilities. Be clear and focused about what you want to happen. To make your advocacy goals a reality, know your community well so that your efforts and actions will resonate.

Second, start now. Don’t wait! Mom—and the Hospital volunteers she inspired—mobilized right away once they had a vision of what to do collectively.

Third, capitalize on your talents and start small. Mom confidently put her creative talents to work. At the same time, she deliberately started small—to see if a Christmas tree fundraiser would catch on. Her efforts did show an early impact—evidence enough to sustain enthusiasm and support.

Fourth, advocate and spread the word. During the event’s early years Mom actively promoted word-of-mouth awareness. Mom was an indefatigable advocate for the Festival. At the grocery store, the post office, or after church—every social gathering provided Mom an opportunity to spread the word. As visibility increased, local television, print news and radio also began telling the Festival story. Even in today’s saturated media environment, personal advocacy—whether using Mom’s face-to-face approach or via social media channels—remains crucially important to building relationships for your cause.

Finally, engage others, share the credit and celebrate! Mom’s enthusiasm engaged others, eventually recruiting influential event sponsors and major donors. At every opportunity, she shared the credit; even into her later years, Mom celebrated the success of the Festival. Now—some 50+ years later, community visitors pay an entrance fee to wander among the Festival’s forest of decorated trees. Some 10,000 grandparents, parents, and kids enjoy this holiday tradition—which now spans three days and raises $100,000 every year.

Christine Spadafor at Erie Community Foundation Festival of Trees
(Photo: Jack Hanrahan, Erie Times-News via AP/Wall Street Journal)
Are you familiar with your local community foundation? With a decrease in government program funding, these important organizations need our support more than ever.

Support Your Local Community Foundation!

At the 2017 Festival of Trees event, the Erie Community Foundation (ECF) honored Mom by sponsoring one of the 80 Christmas trees on display. I am grateful to the Erie Community Foundation for celebrating Mom’s generous spirit in the community she loved. One of the strengths of the Erie Community Foundation—like other community foundations around the country—is that it deeply understands pressing community issues and concerns. The ECF identifies local needs, worthy causes and its important role in supporting local non-profit organizations. To date, the Foundation has distributed more than $9M in grants and scholarships. Despite its expansive scope of activities, the ECF still made it a priority to honor Mom.