Middle schoolers from Loves Park were chosen to create the ornament representing Illinois for the National Christmas Tree Celebration in Washington D.C.
The two dozen Harlem Middle School art students worked on 24 ornaments for more than a month in secret. The National Parks Service didn’t let the kids say anything about their project until the official announcement.
The seventh-graders spent afternoons crafting the state ornament and days dodging questions from friends.
“I would have to make up a different reason every time,” said Peyton Hissong. “I would just say ‘art stuff’ and then kind of walk away.”
Instead of having each student make an ornament, their exploratory art teacher Ruth Meissen says they decided everyone should work on every ornament.
And Meissen says they decided on using only one design.
“It's not just representing our school -- how do we represent our state? So, we agreed on going with the white oak tree as one of the symbols of strength,” she said.
White oak leaves circle the green ornaments. They have an outline of the state with a slogan, “Peace and Joy from Illinois” and a heart dangling from the bottom -- an homage to their hometown.
More than 200,000 tourists will see the tree just outside the White House.
It was hard to imagine all of those eyes on their ornaments, while the seventh-graders were secretly decorating them.
Gabrielle Baumgardner says that part didn’t bother them.
“I think more pressure was going into how many people we were representing,” she said.
Their art teacher -- and 2008 Illinois Teacher of the Year -- Ruth Meissen says only finishing touches remained for the ornaments by the time everyone else even found out about it.
“It's just kind of like cooking a big meal,” said Meissen. “You've been working with all the ingredients for so long and you get near the end, you're like, ‘Does this even taste good anymore?’”
After the many hours putting them together, Meissen said she wanted to make sure her students had the chance to Washington D.C. and see the ceremony.
They created a GoFundMe and started fundraising to cut costs for the families. Meissen said donations made a difference. Most students made the trip.
Before the tree lighting ceremony began, they were whisked behind the ropes to see their tree first. Of course, they also moved some ornaments around and fixed a few branches.
“You know, we're art people,” said Meisen. “So we just ‘zhooshed’ it.”
Meissen says she lit up when someone from the U.S. Department of Education told her Illinois was their favorite.
“It was a real proud moment because these are seventh-graders who did those ornaments and many of the ornaments were made by high school students,” she said.
And when the students saw their tree for the first time?
“It didn't seem real,” said Adryanna Whitmire. “Like I thought it was a dream, but it was actually really amazing to see them; from us just working on them in here (the classroom) to going to see them in front of many people.”
They even felt a little like proud parents to their 5-inch ornaments.
“If you could imagine your kid graduating from college,” said Baumgardner.
Then came the tree lighting ceremony. And just after that, Meissen says they ran over to the White House visitor’s center where their ornament was also featured front and center on a tree.
“That...that actually got me emotional seeing that,” she said.
Maritza Martinez says her class knows the significance of the occasion.
“When’s another time that you're going to be able to be chosen to do this?” said Martinez. “So you just gotta take it and just be happy with it.”
Now that the art students are back in Loves Park, they’re finishing up a few leftover ornaments they plan to give to some of the people who supported their trip.