Hospice Tree of Life Celebrates 20 Years in the Conejo Valley
By Mark Storer
Aline Roberts was alone in 1980. Reeling from a recent divorce and attempting to start her own company, she found herself carrying her mother bodily into the hospital when she became comatose. Her mother was dying and without any real resources, Roberts was in need. “I was broke. I couldn’t even afford to have an ambulance come and get her. I literally carried her into the hospital myself,” she said. “Hospice touched my life, then.”
Hospice of the Conejo provided Roberts with a bed in her mother’s hospital room. “They brought dinners to me and they helped me be at the hospital with her for the three weeks before she passed away,” she said. There was never any charge for any of the services that were provided. As a result, when Hospice of the Conejo began the tradition of the Tree of Life at the Oaks mall, Roberts hung a star on the tree for her mother and her father who passed away previously. Two years ago, Roberts, who is now re-married, placed two more stars on the tree along with her husband in honor of his parents who passed away as well. That tradition will mark its 20th anniversary this year.
“It’s a symbol of love and caring for the holiday season,” said Maria Prescott, Executive Director for Hospice of the Conejo. “It’s not a Christmas tree, it’s a tree of life and we welcome and provide for people of all faiths or none,” she added. “The holidays can be a very rough time for those who’ve lost loved ones,” Prescott said. “The Tree of Life gives them a chance to sit and meditate and grieve. Sometimes, they tell us stories about their loved ones. It’s just very, very healing,” she added.
The Hospice of the Conejo’s Tree of Life began as a fundraiser but has gone on well beyond that according to past President and board member Scott Wolfe. “Unlike some of its other fundraising events which focus on some activity not directly related to the Hospice mission, the Tree of Life affords an opportunity to bring the message of what Hospice does to people in a way that they can relate to personally,” he said. “I have helped others place stars with the names of loved ones, and even placed some of my own. It is almost always a very emotional experience, as it brings the loved one who has passed on to the forefront of the participant’s mind, allowing them not only to remember, but to share some of the significance of that memory with the world in the form of the star placed on the tree,” Wolfe added.
There are now three Trees of Life for Hospice. The Oaks Mall is the original one and it will be placed outside the Macy’s court entrance on the lower level the day after Thanksgiving. The official tree lighting ceremony will take place on December 4 from 6:30 to 7:30 P.M. The Newbury Park High School Choir will perform and refreshments will be served. For the past four years, a second tree has been placed at Gardens of the World in Thousand Oaks and the tree lighting ceremony for that location will be on December 7 from 5:00 to 6:30 P.M. along with music and refreshments. A third tree at Los Robles Regional Medical Center will be placed for its second year with no plans yet for a ceremony.
Irene Brennick, Hospice board member and Director of Volunteers at Los Robles Regional Medical Center has seen the power of the program come to life. “It sure means a lot to people. Every year, someone comes to the tree and tells a story about a loved one,” she said. “Every one’s got a story and it’s a very emotional thing to them. Placing the stars on the tree is healing for them and they want to know that star is there, like it’s an extension of their loved ones,” she added. According to Brennick, all of the stars from all three of the trees each year are kept at the offices of Hospice. “We don’t throw them away. They mean a lot to people,” she said.
Susan Cohen, a Thousand Oaks accountant and past director and board member for Hospice, volunteers every year to man the last time slot at the Oaks Mall tree. “I raised my children doing this and I even dragged my mom with me last year,” she said. “It was our way of doing community service, I guess.” Cohen volunteered for the shift because the tree comes down on Christmas Eve and since her family is Jewish and does not celebrate Christmas, she felt she and her family could best be used then. “I like to listen to people’s stories,” she said. “It’s just a really meaningful program.
“It’s a way to remember someone and really fulfill the mission of Hospice,” said Prescott. “Our entire purpose is to assist people who are either dying or are grieving those who are. It’s all we do.”