Ushering in the Holidays

04 Oct 2023

The Cashiers Festival of Trees unites the community


Picture it: a winter wonderland filled with beautifully decorated trees, festive music, activities for everyone in the family, shopping and delicious food. If it sounds like something out of Santa’s playbook, you’re getting the right idea. And while the Cashiers Festival of Trees may happen more than a few degrees south of the North Pole, the festivity and merriment are exactly on-point. A family-friendly event taking place over Thanksgiving weekend, the festival brings together the Cashiers community as well as the businesses that serve it to celebrate the holiday season. 

With its inaugural run in 2021, the timing of the first Cashiers Festival of Trees could not have been more relevant. In the aftermath of 2020, we craved togetherness and normalcy, making a festival all the more welcome and needed. And while bringing everyone together is high on the list of objectives, the greater goal at work is to raise much-needed funds for the Summit Charter School in Cashiers.

Established as K-8 in 1997, Summit Charter School was one of the first charter schools in the state of North Carolina. In 2018, Summit began adding one new high school grade annually, graduating its first senior class in the spring of 2022. Now, the tuition-free, K-12 public charter school boasts a 100 percent graduation rate with 100 percent earning acceptance to college, including 71 offers of admission from 31 colleges and universities and life-changing scholarships.

“Summit was founded to provide families on the plateau and surrounding communities another public-school option in the education of their children,” says Kurt Pusch, head of Summit Charter School. “At Summit, we partner with families to provide our students a quality of education consistent with our mission to stimulate discovery, inspire excellence and nurture a positive difference in an ever-changing world.”

With a student body of 311, the school is clearly well-attended—and enrollment has only increased. “In August, due to historic enrollment growth, we announced phase II of our expansion from a K-8 to K-12 school,” says Melissa Hudson, development director of Summit Charter School. “As part of the expansion, we will add a new 15,000 square foot high school building, separate from the school’s existing facilities but remaining on our 33-acres of land. The new building will include traditional classrooms, a science lab, a learning kitchen, rooms for individualized education, an outdoor courtyard, admin offices and a large commons area. With this new facility, Summit will transition our current phase I high school building–built in 2019 at 6,600 square feet–into our new middle school building and will add a pavilion for middle school lunch and assemblies. The expansion project also includes a student-designed fitness center, which was funded through a student-led project and opened on August 18, 2023.”

For a charter school like Summit, everyday operations, not to mention an expansion project such as this, requires funding—which is where events like the Festival of Trees come into play. “As a public charter school, Summit receives significantly less funding than a traditional public school and relies heavily on private donations to fully fund the vital needs of its school children, teachers, and facilities,” Hudson says. “The festival supports Summit's operating budget and helps bridge much of the annual financial gap for the school year.”

Last year, the Festival of Trees netted $350,000. Since 2021, it has netted $650,000 for the Summit Charter School Foundation. Additionally, the event supports the work of other organizations in the community. “When a fellow nonprofit decorates a tree or wreath, 80 percent of the item’s sale will go back to the participating nonprofit, creating a collaborative initiative to benefit our fellow charities and their worthy causes,” Hudson says. “Supporting our entire community is very important to our cause and the school’s overall mission.”

In 2022, Summit partnered with a number of nonprofit organizations across the plateau, including Big Brothers Big Sisters WNC, Cashiers Historical Society, HIGHTS, Camp Merrie-Woode Foundation, Teen Challenge of the Smokies Men's Center, Highlands-Cashiers Center For Life Enrichment, Boys and Girls Club of the Plateau, Center for Domestic Peace, Cashiers-Highlands Humane Society, Albert Carlton-Cashiers Community Library, Highlands Biological Foundation, Western Carolina University Foundation, Highlands Cashiers Land Trust, Highlands Cashiers Health Foundation, Blue Ridge Free Dental Clinic, Cashiers Valley Preschool, The Village Green and The Bascom.”

The annual event includes a summer kick-off celebration called the Moët and Chandon Toast to the Trees. Held this year at The Club at High Hampton on Monday, July 31, the Toast had a “Christmas in the Garden” theme. 

As in years past, festivalgoers will be able to enjoy a forest of four-foot to nine-foot decorated trees, tabletop trees, wreaths, and gift baskets—many of which are paired with exciting experiences to bid on. There will also be live entertainment throughout the two-day event, free crafts for children, a pop-up Build-A-Bear Workshop® made possible by Design South Builders, a Dolly Parton Imagination Library stage celebrating the world of books, expanded retail shopping, raffle prizes and visits with Santa, Mrs. Claus and even Disney Princesses. 

Entrance to the Festival of Trees costs $5 for adults and is free for children. The event will take place at the Summit Center from Friday, November 24, though Saturday, November 25, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. both days. New this year, the festival will showcase football games in the new Gameday Lounge in addition to introducing another draw for the adults: Festival: After Dark, an enchanting party held on Friday night featuring lights, music, tapas and adult beverages.

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