Couple gives Christmas trees to families in need
ORWELL — Sterling and Evelyn Muth are blessed with two wonderful children, Addy, 2, and Porter, 4. The two little scamps are coming to know the unbridled joy of Christmas morning, tearing downstairs at the crack of dawn to kneel at the shimmering tree and windmill through wrapping paper to reveal Santa’s bounty.
Along with the religious symbolism for some, it’s about making lifelong memories steeped in togetherness and the spirit of giving.
And the centerpiece of their yuletide fun is the Christmas tree.
But the Muths realize that not every family can afford a tree. So they’re working to help families in Addison and Rutland counties acquire Christmas trees to sweeten their celebrations. The couple has forged relationships with a variety of donors, two school districts and two area farms to get Christmas trees into the living rooms of dozens of area households that might otherwise go without.
“I want children to have a great Christmas, and help families have an easier time during December,” Sterling said. “There’s a cost behind these Christmas trees. The children don’t understand the costs. But to us adults, when we start adding up the dollars and cents — when you put out $40 to $50 for a Christmas tree, if you’re already having a hard time making ends meet, that’s tough.”
Their budding effort is called Northern Roots Tree Farm. For now, they’re acquiring trees from the Werner Tree Farm in Middlebury and Red Sky Farm in Orwell. They’ve delivered around 30 trees thus far to the Addison Central and Slate Valley Unified Union school districts. The districts convey the trees to students’ families who are struggling financially.
In some cases, the Muths are handing out vouchers for families to collect the trees themselves.
And each tree or voucher comes with some basic lights and/or ornaments to give them some pizzazz.
The Muths realize people might have other, more pressing needs this winter than a Christmas tree. But at the same time, they know other nonprofits are working to meet those other needs — including food, clothing and shelter — and Northern Roots Tree Farm is simply focused on boosting the spirits of families in a small way during a special time of the year.
“Children have a lot of trouble understanding time,” Sterling said. “But when a Christmas tree pops up, they know it’s getting that much closer. It represents so much to kids, what’s going to happen that month. You watch children put ornaments on trees. They play with it every day. It’s a true, family activity.”
This is just the beginning of the Northern Roots Tree Farm project. The Muths have begun selling tree seedlings they hope buyers will plant, groom and ultimately donate back to the farm to perpetuate the Christmas tree giving program. Evelyn and Sterling have a dream of seeing thousands of seedlings develop into mature Christmas trees that could ultimately go to low-income households throughout the state.
Northern Roots has been more than a year in the making. But it was only a month ago that the couple decided to launch the Christmas tree donation program. Sterling was driving up Route 22A to Burlington (where he works as an insurance agent) when he heard chatter on his car radio about how things would be tougher for many Vermonters this holiday season due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“At that moment, I said to myself, ‘No more excuses, let’s just do it,’” he recalled. “I thought that even if we could just give 10 Christmas trees this year, it would make a difference. And that’s what started it.”
He and Evelyn completed paperwork to officially give Northern Roots Tree Farm nonprofit status.
The Muths don’t have mature, ready-to-cut Christmas trees growing on their three-acre Orwell property, so Sterling reached out to Werner’s, Red Sky and area business owners to coordinate this year’s tree giving effort.
Just about everyone thought it was a great idea. This year’s sponsors include the American Legion, Shaw’s, the UPS Store, Dakin Farm, Stone Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram, and Buxton’s Store. Individuals have also dug into their pockets to make the Muths’ vision a reality.
“It’s been really neat,” Sterling said. “Everybody in Vermont and Addison County wants to help.”
It was Evelyn, a social worker by trade, who suggested working with area school districts to identify families in need of Christmas trees.
“It allows us to keep everything anonymous,” Sterling said.
The Muths have also filled the occasional request outside of the two school districts. Sterling said someone recently contacted him through the Northern Roots Tree Farm Facebook site to inform him of a recently separated couple with four young children — one of whom is disabled. The Muths graciously provided a Christmas tree voucher to hopefully bring some cheer during their tough times.
“It’s rewarding that people are now starting to contact us to ask for help,” Sterling said. “It makes it so worthwhile.”
Their initial plan was to deal exclusively in vouchers to allow families to make an event out of choosing and cutting their own trees. But the couple came to realize that some families can’t easily travel to either of this year’s participating farms.
Northern Roots Tree Farm has meant the Muths are quite busy in the days leading up to Dec. 25. They both work their day jobs sometimes until around 6 p.m., then put in another four hours planning tree pickups, drop-offs, and decoration harvests.
GIVER OR RECEIVER
As a child, Sterling often imagined what goodies might be concealed by the colorful wrap enrobing the Christmas gifts that bore his name. As an adult, his mind wanders to how he can become a better giver than a receiver. He believes the Northern Roots Tree Farm model could be replicated in each of the state’s 14 counties.
And he believes someday, scores of people who once bought seedlings through the farm will converge for a holiday festival.
“For a long weekend, people could come and bring their Christmas trees that they farmed themselves and took care of,” he said. “Then we would distribute them.”
More information about North Roots Tree Farm can be found at Northernrootstreefarm.org. The site includes a selection of tree seedlings ranging in price from $25 to $40.
Leaders of the two benefitting school districts praised the Muths for their hard work and generosity.
“I think it’s wonderful when the community comes together to take care of each other, and this outreach is another example of that,” ACSD Superintendent Peter Burrows said. “The pandemic is having an impact on so many families in Addison County. This generosity and kindness is inspiring and reminds us all just how important community is.”
The SVUUSD serves children in Orwell and several Rutland County towns.
“As a district we are always thankful for the support for our students and families; this is especially true during this very difficult year,” said SVUUSD Superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell.
“We are seeing an increase in the number of families struggling and certainly the pandemic has taken a toll on the well-being of our students and families,” she added. “A little bit of kindness certainly goes a long way to bolster everyone’s spirits. We are fortunate to have such caring individuals in Slate Valley community.”
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.