Christmas trees fill the hall at The Elm for the fifth annual Sukeforth Family Festival of Trees in Waterville on Nov. 23, 2019. This year’s fundraising event has been canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic and local nonprofits have been looking elsewhere to find replacement funds. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

WATERVILLE — The popular Sukeforth Family Festival of Trees that usually kicks off this month to raise money for area nonprofit organizations will not be held this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, organizers confirmed this week.

At the end of August, organizers announced via social media that the event would be canceled and reiterated that decision this week. The festival is hosted by Doug and Rita Sukeforth, and last year, it benefited Hospice Volunteers of Waterville Area, Shriners’ Hospitals and Spectrum Generations’ Meals on Wheels program.

“It was a hard decision for our family to make,” the Sukeforths’ daughter, Annette Sukeforth Marin, said Tuesday in response to a request for comment about this year’s cancellation. “We love doing the festival, and we know it brings great joy to the community. It also helps our charities with much needed funds. We are hoping to have our 2021 festival and make it bigger and better than ever.”

Officials from organizations that benefit from the festival say the Sukeforths are very generous to hold the fundraiser every year, and they understand the decision to cancel because of the pandemic.

“We’ve really appreciated the Sukeforth family support over the years with the festival of trees and Doug (Sukeforth) has continued to be in contact with us and we really appreciate that,” said Sarah Swift-Simons, executive director of Hospice Volunteers of Waterville Area.

Swift-Simons said Wednesday that everything has been different this year because of  the pandemic, and people have had to change the way they do things.

“We canceled a number of in-person events as well,” she said, “so I think we’re just focusing on meeting our program needs and fundraising as best we can, and looking forward to next year being better and for the festival of trees, hopefully, being held next year. The festival of trees is a major source of income for us, but of course, we understand it can’t happen. Everything’s just really different.”

Swift-Simons, who was not working for hospice during last year’s festival, said her organization is trying to think creatively and adapt to help bridge the gap during the pandemic.

“I’m trying not to compare this year with previous years because you can’t,” she said. “We’re just trying to figure it out going forward.”

Likewise, Gerard Queally, president and chief executive officer of Spectrum Generations, said the Meals on Wheels Program benefits greatly from the Sukeforth tree festival, but officials understand why it could not be held this year.

“The Sukeforth family, fortunately, informed everybody early on,” Queally said Wednesday. “We’ve known for about two months that they were canceling it so we made sure that we did not count on that money in our fiscal year. It was very helpful for them to let us know early, so kudos to them.”

Queally said that during a normal year, Spectrum delivers 800 Meals on Wheels each day, and this year it is doing about 1,800 daily in a territory that stretches from Brunswick to Jackman and over to Belfast.

“We, fortunately, have federal money that is still available to us, and we’ll be able to to continue to do that up through, probably, next summer, and then the state is going to have to make some decisions because state money for Meals on Wheels expires next June,” he said.

Whether the state Legislature continues to fund the meals program is unknown, according to Queally.

There are Five Area Agencies on Aging in the state, and each one has its own Meals on Wheels Program, he said.

“We get federal money to fund Meals on Wheels and we have to fundraise,” he said, adding that Spectrum usually raises between $500,000 and $600,000 a year to do Meals on Wheels.

“The Sukeforth Family Festival of Trees is a big fundraiser for us,” he said.

Queally said Spectrum must match 25 to 30 cents on the dollar for every government dollar it gets, so that requires community involvement.

“The Sukeforths have been a big assistance in doing that work,” he said. “This year we’ll be OK, but who knows what next year will hold? Whether this new Legislature continues to fund Meals on Wheels is to be determined. I’m actually more concerned about that than losing the Sukeforth Festival of Trees.”

Last year, the fifth annual tree festival was held over two weekends starting Nov. 22 at The Elm on College Avenue, where visitors purchased tickets to try to win 60 trees decorated for the holidays and laden with gifts worth thousands of dollars. Organizations and businesses from Waterville and surrounding communities donated the fully decorated, themed and lighted artificial trees.

In 2018, the festival raised more than $200,000 and drew about 13,000 people to The Elm, located at 21 College Ave. The former American Legion hall had been transformed by its new owner, Bill Mitchell, into the event center. Last year, Spectrum’s Meals on Wheels program alone received $87,614 through the fundraiser.

On Aug. 30, the Sukeforth family posted a message on the festival’s Facebook page, indicating that the event would not be held in 2020 due to the pandemic.

“Due to the continued uncertainty with COVID-19, the Sukeforth family has made the difficult decision to cancel the 2020 Sukeforth Family Festival of Trees,” the post said. “We look forward to seeing each of you at our next event in November 2021, and we wish each of you good health as you surround yourself with your loved ones.”

Asked if the family considered doing the tree festival virtually, Sukeforth Marin, who organizes and works on the festival with family members, said they didn’t.

“We did not consider a virtual event,” she said. “It would have totally changed our event, and we did not want to do that.”

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