By Kyle LoJacono
ZEPHYRHILLS — For the last 25 years, there have been Christmas trees at Florida Hospital Zephyrhills.
“It is such a special event to experience with family and the community,” said Stephanie Watts, spokesperson for the American Cancer Society’s Pasco Unit. “It’s a great time for the community to come together to celebrate the holiday season. It’s a very special time and really kicks of the Christmas season here in Zephyrhills.”
Watts was born in raised on the Pasco County side of Lutz and has worked with ACS for two years.
Jerry Sterner, 64, was the coordinator for the annual Christmas trees for the community presented by the hospital for 20 years. He recently retired as the director of community relations in September but was asked by hospital administration to come back and be the master of ceremonies this year.
“The trees are a tradition here in Zephyrhills,” Sterner said. “It’s one of the signature events of Florida Hospital Zephyrhills that started in December of 1985. It is one of the highlights of the community and really marks the start of the holiday season.
“The hospital has been here 25 years, and so have the Christmas trees.”
Sterner said the Tree Decorating and Lighting Program is usually the first Sunday in December, unless Thanksgiving is the week before. When that happens, the lighting is second weekend.
“People in the community look forward to the tree lighting, and it does kind of start the holiday celebration in the area,” said Lyn Acer, hospital spokesperson. “This year, we had more than 2,000 people at the event.”
While the trees have been part of Zephyrhills for 25 years, this year was the first for Acer.
“For me it was a great opportunity to see the community come together,” Acer said. “It’s a special time of year, and it’s amazing to see so much community participation and support for the event.”
There are more than 50 trees this year, which include one for each state in the union, one for Canada, one for Support Our Troops, and an international tree.
Different groups sign up to decorate the trees as early as a year in advance. The decorations on the tree are meant to reflect the culture and traditions of the area or group it is named after.
The ACS chose to decorate the Washington tree because the first Relay For Life took place in Washington 25 years ago.
“In 1985, Dr. Gordon Klatt walked around a track for 24 hours to raise money for a local ACS office,” Watts said. “Relay For Life as grown from that into something that most people have heard of.
“It’s very cool to have the 25th anniversary of the Relay For Life and the Christmas trees at the hospital happen at the same time.”
The Washington tree was decorated with lots of purple items because purple is the color for all cancer awareness. The ACS also put apple ornaments on the tree.
Watts said next year, the ACS will be decorating the international tree because cancer is a disease felt worldwide.
The Tennessee tree was decorated by the Zephyrhills Historical Association, which put maps of the state, items from the Grand Ole Opry and records from county music stars form the state, such as Johnny Cash.
“We’ve done the Christmas tree decorating for about 10 years as a group,” said Margaret Seppanen, president with the association. “The lighting is a lot of fun. We look forward to looking at the other trees to see other people’s handiwork that we might be able to use the next year.”
Seppanen said the association will be decorating the California tree next year.
“I’m very proud of the hospital and what it offers to the community,” Sterner said. “It’s an expensive program, but it’s a gift to the community. The hospital doesn’t sell tickets or anything for the tree lighting.
“It’s a (nonprofit) hospital that still gives these special gifts to the community.”
Sterner said the trees will be up until the first full week of the new year. The Pasco County Parks and Recreation
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