The flurry of small children mobbed the not-much-larger Christmas tree in San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza, straining to hang homemade ornaments on any vacant real estate. Wayne Standerwick folded his arms and watched the chaotic scene with a satisfied look.
For Standerwick, the annual decorating of the Community Christmas Tree is the highlight of the year. It’s on his mind, even in summer when people don’t think of things like Christmas Trees.
“The gift is when people come by after the kids put on the ornaments,” said Standerwick, the organizer of the tree. “This is for everybody to put ornaments onto the tree. It puts smiles on peoples’ faces.”
This annual holiday ritual began in 1996; the subject was the bay leaf tree in the front yard of Standerwick’s Mission District apartment. One holiday season, it occurred to him the tree could benefit from some ornamentation. He flagged down a woman from a local Head Start program who happened to be walking by with a group of kids. He persuaded them to return to decorate the tree.
“My roommate at the time just thought, ‘he’s crazy,’” said Standerwick with a devious grin.
If indeed Standerwick has any gaps in sanity, the sometimes musician certainly makes up for it with persistence. Year after year, he enlisted more kids from more schools to make more ornaments for the tree, which he branded the Community Christmas Tree.
His vision didn’t stop at San Francisco’s borders. Through his travels, he convinced schools in Germany, Austria and Mexico to contribute ornaments and cards.
“I say let’s start making cards with uplifting messages, like ‘you’re awesome.’” Standerwick said.
Six years ago, Standerwick’s dream outgrew his bay leaf tree. He convinced the City to allow him to move his Community Tree operation to Civic Center for a week every Christmas season.
During the second year in Civic Center, Standerwick turned up one day to find the tree and homemade ornaments stolen. It was a kick in the stomach.
“When it first happened it was devastating, especially to the kids,” he said. “I had to go to the schools and let them know.”
But Standerwick divined a life lesson from the experience. He bought another tree, made more ornaments, and purchased two thick locks. He explained to the kids about overcoming obstacles.
“It was a lesson. Everything has a gift,” he said.
On Wednesday, flocks of children in Civic Center reached into the boxes of homemade glittery ornaments. Some brought their own. After decorating the tree, Standerwick rewarded each child with a kiwi and a children’s book, all arranged through donations. The tree’s meager lights were powered with a solar panel – a lesson in sustainability
All throughout the plaza, hundreds of homeless had turned-out for San Francisco’s Project Homeless Connect.
A homeless woman walked up to Standerwick. “I thought you weren’t going to come this year,” she said.
Standerwick’s eyes twinkled as he talked about the mission of the Community Tree -- its lofty themes of global awareness and international peace. But it’s delivered with a gentle sincerity that defies hippy-speak.
Once the tree is taken down in a week, the ornaments and cards are donated to shelters, hospitals and senior homes in San Francisco, Europe and Mexico. Standerwick explains to the kids how even the small gesture of making a card or an ornament can bring a moment of happiness to someone far away.
“So then they get the idea - ‘wow’ - I can help just not here but other cities,” he said.