HAYS — Amid the glitter and decorations in downtown Hays stand two Christmas trees that hold special meaning to those who have lost loved ones. Both trees are located at Jackie Creamer’s Dance Studio, 1003 Main St.
The Center for Life Experience has sponsored the Holiday Children’s Memorial Tree for many years. Each ornament on that tree represents a child who has died, with some of the ornaments dating back to the late 1980s, said Ann Leiker, the center’s director.
In fact, she added, some of the parents who originally placed the special ornaments on that tree have since died themselves.
The children’s memorial tree is decorated by members of Healing Hearts, a support group for immediate family members who are healing from the death of a child.
A new tree has been put up this year and decorated by members of Healing After Loss and Healing After Loss of Suicide (HALOS). Healing After Loss is a support group for those healing from adult losses, such as the death of a spouse, parent, sibling or friend.
HALOS is a support group for family members and friends who have lost a loved one to suicide.
The new tree is decorated with red cardinal ornaments, the symbol for the Healing After Loss group, and white dove ornaments, representing the HALOS group, Leiker said.
"Christmas is the season of hope, and at the holidays you have to work through the loss and find a reason to hope," she said.
The public is invited to visit the studio and view the trees. Individuals are also welcome to place ornaments on either tree. "People can bring their own ornament or take an untagged one off the tree and write their own message and add the name of the person they have lost," Leiker said.
The studio is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Both trees face Main Street and are lit up at night. Leiker said the center is grateful to Creamer for displaying the trees.
The COVID-19 pandemic has added to the feeling of loneliness and loss that many already feel during the holidays, Leiker said. "Every time we turn on the TV or read the news, we hear about how many people have died today."
Even before the pandemic, the Center for Life Experience was working with students and faculty at Fort Hays State University to study how grief and loss affect the entire community, Leiker said, and that effort continues.
Loss extends beyond the death of a loved one, she added.
"Businesses are closing, people lose jobs, there’s the loss of financial security," Leiker said. "People shouldn’t feel ashamed when they feel grief after loss, because those feelings are normal."
Leiker said the two trees will be up until after New Year’s. Then she and her staff will carefully remove the ornaments and store them until next year.
She encouraged those who are interested in joining one of the support groups or in finding out more about the center’s other services to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or drop by the center at its new address, 103C E. 27th St. in Oak Plaza. The office is open Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.
"Our theme is ‘building communities of hope and healing,’ and that is what we are trying to do," she said.