The sun streamed through the front windows of Jackie Creamer's The Dance Studio on Saturday morning in Hays as families gathered around an empty Christmas tree. One by one, they began hanging ornaments until the Healing Hearts Children's Memorial Tree was full from top to bottom.
Healing Hearts, a support group offered through the Center for Life Experiences for family members dealing with the death of a child, has been offering the memorial tree event for more than 20 years.
"It's not about the death of our child so much as it is about keeping them alive in parents' and families’ hearts," Ann Leiker, executive director of the Center for Life Experiences, said of the event.
"They're still a part of our family, so this is a way to include them in the holiday."
Carolyn Younger, one of the event organizers, lost her son, Cody, in 2009. She and her husband, Neal, have been attending the event since.
"They're having Christmas in heaven, so we're having it here for them on earth," Carolyn Younger said.
Many families choose to bring their own personalized ornaments, or reuse ones used in past years; however, ornaments also were provided for those who do not have one.
The name of each child was read aloud as a variety of ornaments were placed on the tree.
Ornaments also were hung for those who were not able to attend, as well as those for children whose parents or families also have passed.
It was the second year Curtis and Jeanna Wellbrock, Victoria, along with their children Christian, Levi, Lucas, Ann and Elizabeth, have attended to honor the memory of their son, Matthew. With Elizabeth on her shoulders, Jeanna looked on as Lucas placed a tractor ornament on the tree for Matthew.
"It's just a way of remembering Matthew and keeping a tradition," Jeanna said of the memorial tree.
The tree has been displayed in various locations through the years, but has been at The Dance Studio, 1003 Main, for the past six years.
"It has a nice area where people can see it," Younger said of the large display window where the tree sits.
The tree is on a timer and will be illuminated all night through the holiday season.
After each ornament was hung, the group joined hands around the tree as Leiker said a closing prayer.
"Heavenly Father, we remember that you too lost a son, and you too know our pain. And you too know love goes on," Leiker said.
The Healing Hearts support group meets the second Thursday of the month at 7 p.m. at the Center for Life Experiences at First Presbyterian Church, 2900 Hall. For more information, visit cflehope.org.