A Riverton family has participated in the Festival of Trees for five years in a row. Heather Mitchell and her now ex-husband Ryan started participating in 2009 after their 7-year-old son Gabriel passed away in his sleep.
“We started doing it in [Gabriel’s] honor on the year that he passed away,” Heather Mitchell said. “It’s like our family giving Gabriel a Christmas present every year.”
Gabriel was a special needs child who couldn’t verbalize much, and he was considered blind. However, these impairments didn’t stop him from enjoying the Festival of Trees with his family.
“He loved being there, so it just kind of became a tradition . . . He loved all the noises and smells. He was super happy and content while we were there and just had a big smile on his face,” Mitchell said.
The couple also has another son Isaiah, 2, who is not special needs. They took him to the Festival of Trees last year, which was his first time. They will also be taking him again this year.
The theme of their tree this year is “Gabe’s Heart of Gold.” It will have gold and bronze colored decorations, most shaped like hearts. Usually the family does a large tree every year, but due to financial reasons, they’re doing a smaller tree for this year’s festival.
“[Gabriel] was just the most amazing little boy and always brought so much joy to everybody, so I wanted to do something more along the lines of his heart and stuff like that,” Mitchell said.
Gabriel’s great-grandmother Nancy Allred buys the tree every year. Mitchell’s family donates money to help buy decorations, and they help decorate it. Mitchell estimates that it will take them about five hours this year.
Mitchell said that the main reason they participate in the Festival of Trees is because they firmly believe in raising money for Primary Children’s Hospital. Their doctors and nurses were very helpful and kind.
“All of Gabriel’s doctors were at Primary’s. We were there a lot,” Mitchell said. “I think it was just like anytime he was there—whether it was a surgery or a doctor’s appointment—all the doctors and nurses were attentive and very sweet with him.”
A few of their more memorable trees included a Davy Crockett-themed tree that they did in 2010. Gabriel was obsessed with the American frontiersman. Also, in 2011, they did a “Beauty and the Beast” inspired tree because it was one of his favorite movies.
“He would wear out that movie because he watched it so much . . . That tree was my favorite; it was awesome,” Mitchell said.
Although they didn’t receive any financial support from the funds raised at the Festival of Tree’s fundraising when Gabriel was sick, the Mitchell family is very thankful that this event continues to happen every year.
“We have such happy memories of taking Gabriel to the Festival of Trees every year, so we just continue to do it,” Mitchell said. “I think it’s an awesome way for families to get together and a great way for people to honor their loved ones who have passed on.”
The Mitchell family plan to continue decorating and donating trees in Gabriel’s honor for many years to come.
“I start thinking about the next tree right after we finish the one we’re working on,” Mitchell said.