BENNINGTON — Crystal Harris has been hand-painting Christmas ornaments every year since 1995.
It started the year her husband spent the holiday season deployed with the Navy, and she wanted to send him a slice of Christmas from home. She has then given or sold the ornaments to friends and acquaintances.
This year, you could say Harris worked on a grander scale.
For nearly three weeks in October, the teacher supervised students at the School of Sacred Heart Saint Francis de Sales in hand-painting ornaments for the National Park Service. The 24 plastic balls her team painted will decorate one of 56 trees surrounding the National Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C. this holiday season.
Each of the smaller trees represents a state, U.S. territory or the national capital, whose ornaments are created by one school from the area. Sacred Heart is this year's pick for Vermont.
"Two days ago, it hit me: Oh my goodness, we're the only school in the state," Harris, Sacred Heart's middle school art teacher, said in an interview Monday.
She and the school principal, David Estes, learned of their selection on Oct. 9. Two days later, Harris and 16 middle school students she selected for the project began working on the plastic balls that the National Park Service had sent over. They would meet for 2-1/2 hours after school.
Harris gave the students the freedom to choose their designs as long as the images were representative of Vermont, in accordance with the program theme. But she did instruct the fifth- to eighth-graders to first draw their designs on paper, which would serve as a visual guide.
By the time the group finished painting on Monday, it had recreated natural and man-made symbols of Vermont: sugar maple trees, a covered bridge, monuments, monarch butterflies, a honeybee, hermit thrushes.
One student who wanted to "have more fun" with her second ornament decided to paint Champ, a monster that, according to folklore, lives in Lake Champlain. The student artists later voted the piece, created by seventh grader Cheyenne McGowan, as the ornament to represent their school.
Harris said she was "astronomically proud" of the young artists, who were between 10 and 14 years old. "They did a phenomenal job, especially given the amount of time that we had."
Grace Diedrich, a seventh grader who lives in Arlington, said she was surprised and honored to have been chosen to be part of the ornament team.
The 12-year-old painted the Green Mountains along with a honeybee and beehive, explaining that the insect is "very important to the environment here."
Sacred Heart's ornaments are now heading to Washington, D.C., where they will make their debut at the National Christmas Tree Lighting on Dec. 5.
Visitors can view the trees from Dec. 9 to Jan. 1 in a display called America Celebrates, said National Park Service spokeswoman Katelyn Liming. They will be lit up at 4:30 p.m. each day.
Held in President's Park, a national park that encompasses the White House grounds, the tree display is an annual holiday tradition that started in 1923 with a 48-foot fir donated by Middlebury College.
The Vermont tree last year was decorated by students from Randolph Elementary and Middle Schools in the central Vermont town of Randolph.
The Park Service worked with the U.S. Department of Education, as well as state art and education agencies to identify the participating schools this year. The project, funded by the National Park Foundation, involved some 1,500 students.
Being part of a rare national project, Grace said she and her mom have talked about going to Washington, D.C. to view the Christmas trees next month.
"I think it'll be a great opportunity,"said Grace's mom, Lisa Diedrich. "We're trying to figure out when to squeeze that in."
Contact Tiffany Tan at firstname.lastname@example.org, @tiffgtan at Twitter and 802-447-7567 ext. 122.