The holidays jump up on our calendars and barrel toward us with increasing speed, and turn up the volume on stress –– so much to do, and so little time. We’ve barely stashed away our uneaten Halloween candy before plans are underway for family Thanksgiving gatherings, brightly wrapped presents, and holiday travel. Amidst the hubbub, folks in Shady Pines take time to focus on something really important: Gratitude.

Giant candy canes stand at attention along Main Street, and a big, red bow hangs on the front door of Cup ‘O Joe’s coffee shop. On a quiet Tuesday afternoon, Pete, owner of Pets Galore, drops in for a mocha-flavored cappuccino. One of his favorite clients, Joan MacGilicutty, has a dollop of whipped cream added to her frozen frappé drink.

‘Hi ya, Pete.”

“Well, hi yourself, Joan. How’s that pretty little poodle of yours?”

“Oh, Precious is fine. Thank you. Are you still planning the pet adoption this season?”

The annual Pet Adoption at Pets Galore is always popular. A lot of children ask Santa to bring them puppies for Christmas. And while a pet can be a wonderful addition to a family, an animal companion is also a big responsibility. Pete likes to educate kids early about being kind and caring to their critters.

“Hey, Pete. We’re grateful for our pets, right?”


“And the kids from the grade school are working on a gratitude tree.”

“Over at the Community Center. Joan, are you thinking about combining the two events?”

“C’mon, Pete. Let’s go!”

The arts and crafts room at the Shady Pines Community Center is a cluttered mess. Volunteers try their best to create order, but holiday decorations litter the big open room, and construction noise fills the air.

Harold Sanders and a couple of his employees at the Nuts ‘N’ Bolts hardware store come clanging and banging through the double doors. They carry a man-made tree that must be at least six feet tall. The triangular-shaped tree of sturdy oak has branches from real, longleaf pine trees nailed on tight. The men haul the tree on its side and try to wedge it through the opening.

“I think it’s going to fit, Harold, branches and all,” says Mack.

“That’s great, Mack. Hey, Hank, do you have the stand?”

“Right here.”

“Good,” Mack says. “Let’s put the tree over there where it’s out of the way.” As he swings the tree around to place it in the stand, one of the branches hits Harold in the head.

“Hey, watch out!” says Harold.

“Whoops! Sorry, Harold!”

“I’ll be okay, Hank. May have knocked a little sense into me.”

All three men chuckle and hoist the tree up onto its stand.

“Does it look straight, Harold?”

“Hank, you’d better ask Mack. I’m still seeing stars.”

“A little more to the left, Hank,” says Mack. “There. That’s good.”

They take a few steps back to admire their creation. Soon the children will arrive to cut out paper pinecones. After writing on them what they’re thankful for in their lives, they will tie them to the tree branches with red ribbons.

Harold and the guys didn’t notice that Joan and Pete are right behind them. Pete clears his throat to get their attention.

“Not bad for amateurs.”

“You know what, Pete? Joan says. “I think it’s even better than last year.”

The three men turn around at the same time.

“Hey, look who’s here,” says Harold.

“It’s Joan and Pete,” Hank says.

“Are you going to help out?” asks Mack.

“We sure are!” Joan and Pete say together.

They all fall toward one another hugging and shaking hands. These friends are bonded by a common goal –– to help kids have the best holiday ever. Many of the children who enjoy the annual event at the Community Center have absent parents, for one reason or another. The circle of love and support that this project represents lifts their spirits during the holiday season.

“Hey, where do you want me to put these?” One of the volunteers helping to decorate carries an armload of ornament boxes. The fragile, colorful balls will decorate the Center’s Christmas tree later on. The trouble is, right now, he can barely see above the top box and shuffles right towards the tree. Before anyone can yell, “Look out,” the man bumps right into the tree. Swaying uncontrollably on its stand, rocking from one side to the other, the tree lurches to the right before toppling to the floor. The boxes fly across the room, crashing to the earth in an almost musical tinkling of breaking ornaments.

Harold and the guys are stunned. Pieces of branches are strewn everywhere and the trunk lands with a crashing thud.

“Wow,” Harold says.

Mack gently whistles through his teeth.

“Sorry, sorry, sorry!” says the volunteer. “I didn’t see –– all the boxes –– I’ll help clean up,” he says, kneeling to the floor.

The group stares at him, the boxes, the tree and shattered glass.

“Guess there’s only one thing to do,” says Harold. “Guys, get your tools. There’s a lot of work to be done, and the kids are due anytime.”

“Hey, Pete,” Joan says. “Why don’t we get the kids to work on their pine cone messages in the other room?”

“That’s a great idea. What are we waiting for?”

As Pete and Joan dash to the next room to set up, Harold, Hank, and Mack get to work. They have to reassemble branches and part of the tree trunk as fast as they can. Soon they hear laughter and giggling coming from the other side of the wall. Joan claps her hands to get the kids’ attention.

“All right, everyone. Listen up. Shhhh. Pete is going to explain what to do.”

“Kids, we all have something that we are grateful for in our lives, right?”


“Good. Now Joan and I will help you if you need it. We want you to write down one thing that you are thankful for this year.”

Serious young faces turn their attention to the paper pine cones they’ve just cut out of colorful paper. Joan and Pete circle the room and see that the children have written a variety of answers: friends, family, my dog, my cat, school, my mom, my dad, my bed, my baby sister, macaroni and cheese, church, my house, peanut butter, and grandma and grandpa.

Everyone was quiet and working, until they weren’t. The mood in the room changed the moment a little girl turned to the little boy next to her. He’d written down “my pet snake.”

“That answer is stupid.”

“No, it’s not.”

“Is, too.”

“Is not!”

Joan and Pete jump up and try to separate the two, but not before both children wad up some unused paper and start throwing it.

“Hey, pine cone fight!” someone says, and soon balls of orange and blue and red and yellow fly everywhere. Youngsters duck out of the way, laughing and screeching at the same time.

Anticipating that something like this might happen, Joan wears a whistle tied around her neck by a piece of red ribbon. In one swift, motion, she brings it to her mouth and BLOWS! She picks it up and blows. Everyone stops and covers their ears. Pete’s mouth drops open, shocked at the shrill noise.

“All right. That’s enough,” Joan says. “Listen up. I want each of you to return to your seat. The kids shuffle over to their tables, and the sound of chair legs dragging across the floor fill the awkward silence.

“Pick up your pine cone messages and follow Pete and me into the next room. And, most of all, do it quietly.”

The sound of little, shuffling feet alert Harold and the guys that the kids are heading their way. They hammer the last branch back into place. When the children look up at the tall tree they are amazed. It’s bigger than the one last year.

“That’s ginormous,” one little girl says.

“Huge,” says another.

One of the smaller boys, clutching his pine cone, tugs on Harold’s tool belt. “I want to put mine up high,” he says, and soon the adults are lifting the smallest children up on their shoulders so they can tie their pine cones to the tallest branches. Old and young alike smile and help one another.

The gratitude project is the brainchild of the Community Center Director, Rita Mallena. It was her hope that during the rushing around and the hoopla of the holiday season, people would stop for a moment to appreciate the true gifts of the season. In this moment, with messages of thanks swaying from the branches of the gratitude tree, it seems, once again: Mission Accomplished!

To find out how to make your own Gratitude Tree go HERE