Carol Williams has always been a force for community connection. She knows the names of every kid who lives on her street, her neighbors’ dogs, and their life stories.
So when COVID-19 shut down her usual summer potlucks, Williams wanted to find a way to safely connect with her neighbors.
Her son Carey had just completed a 1,900-mile bike ride from northwest Washington to San Luis Obispo, California. He sent her pictures along the way, but the one that stuck out to Williams was of a small tree covered in fluttering little papers called “the tree of gratitude.”
The idea of re-creating the tree had been floating around in her head, so when her friend Melanie Felgenhauer came to stay over for her eighth birthday, Williams knew it was the perfect opportunity to create her own.
“I came over here to have a sleepover with her a little after my birthday and she had this fun idea of doing a gratitude tree,” Felgenhauer said. “She had some cards, so I decorated the cards with some gems and stickers. We put them in a box and put out pens and lollipops and then the kids could get them and write cards.”
Now, three months later, there are nearly 200 cards decorating the approximately 80-foot spruce tree in Williams’ front yard on the 500 block of West 28th Avenue , just blocks away from Comstock Park.
“The children in the neighborhood counted yesterday and there are 173 cards here,” Williams said. “Sometimes if I’m feeling like I’m a little down, I just go look at the tree and go, ‘Gratitude! Gratitude! Gratitude!’ ”
Index cards decorated by Felgenhauer and neighborhood children sit in a basket with pipe cleaners to attach them to the tree. Passersby can read Williams’ instructions, use some hand sanitizer, and then write their own card and attach it to the tree.
Some of the cards are simple, expressing thanks for things like toys or getting to go to the park while others are deep, talking about recovering from illness or getting a new job.
“I mean, I called it the gratitude tree, but in a way it’s like a giving tree,” Williams said. “It’s like a refocusing tree, a loving tree; it’s giving people a voice.”
Williams’ husband, Tom, said while he wasn’t surprised his wife created the tree, having it up the last few months has been “just full of surprises.”
Williams is no stranger to facilitating self-expression. She taught elementary school before moving to Spokane and becoming the pastor at Mission Community Presbyterian Church.
Since the tree went up, neighbors have been enjoying stopping by to read new messages.
Susan King, who lives up the street, said it has reminded her to be grateful for her health despite recently recovering from kidney stones.
“What a great thing to do right now; it’s a dark time for all of us and we’re trying to keep positive,” King said. “(Carol) and her husband are famous for finding the silver lining in things.”
King said she has noticed many people walking by, then returning later with their children to write a gratitude card.
“There’s a lot of love for Spokane on those cards,” King said.
Louisa Lager had walked by the tree a few times taking the children for whom she is an au pair to and from school. On Tuesday, she decided to finally stop and express her gratitude for her host family in Spokane and her family back in Austria.
Williams came out of the house and shared the tree of gratitude’s origin story with Lager, who listened intently.
“I think it’s those little things that make those tough times great,” Lager said.
She ended up hiding an egg for a planned scavenger hunt for the children she takes care of; Williams, of course, was thrilled to watch for the children’s discovery later in the day.
Williams recalled one pair of ladies who stopped last week and said they had been out for a walk in a new neighborhood.
They said, “We have been walking grouchy all morning. We’re feeling grouchy. We’re talking grouchy. We are grouchy,” Williams recalled.
But seeing the tree brightened their day and reminded them how much they have to be grateful for, Williams said.
“I think that we all have it within us,” Williams said. “We all have it within us to sometimes dig really, really deep to find gratitude.”
A few minutes later, Melanie and her father, Joseph Felgenhauer, arrived to see the tree’s progress.
“I didn’t think there would be this many cards, but I think I like them,” Felgenhauer said.
She decided to read her first card, written in July.
“I wish the virus was done,” she struggled to make out the words faded from time in the sun.
“I thought it was a really cool idea for the community,” Felgenhauer said. “Carol is so tuned in and engaged with her community. I mean, just the word ‘community’ is a word that epitomizes my friend.”
In the last few weeks, Williams has received letters and notes from people in Spokane saying they are going to start their own interactive art installation in their yards, something that makes Williams extremely happy.
For her “Tree of Gratitude,” Williams said she plans to leave it up for as long as the cards decide to stay up, saying seeing the cards gives her a boost.
“I opened up the curtain and and I saw this gratitude, gratitude,” she said, “and it just helped me to feel better.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.