Monday , June 17 2019
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ECS, Holiday Valley Pose for “Tree for Troops”

By Jann Wiswall

What do you get when you fill a 50-feet-squared space with 800 people wearing green, red, white and yellow T-shirts? If you’re being directed by Patty Watson, you get a photograph of an enormous Christmas tree that will be printed on cards and sent to hundreds of U.S. military service members as holiday greetings.

For that reason, the entire student body of Ellicottville Central School, teachers and staff, along with dozens of Holiday Valley staff members, spent Tuesday morning at Holiday Valley’s Tannenbaum Lodge creating the Christmas tree that was photographed from the bucket of the Ellicottville Fire Department’s fully extended ladder truck.

How it Came Together

The event, the brainchild of Hamburg aerial designer Patty Watson, involved weeks of planning and coordination on the part of Watson, volunteer professional photographer Dave Sion, and their team of volunteers. After getting Holiday Valley on board, the next step was to find 800 willing participants. For Watson, that may have been the easiest part. She went directly to ECS Superintendent Mark Ward and asked him to allow the entire school – students, teachers, staff and all – to participate. At first, Ward said he was skeptical, but when Watson explained the educational value of the exercise and that she had done this type of event before with as many as 3,000 school students, Ward agreed.

The logistics of the whole operation might have been daunting for anyone else, but Watson and her crew made it look easy.

“She is the most organized person I’ve ever met,” said Ward.

On Monday, a huge tarp cut into the tree shape and another in the star shape were placed on the little bit of snow still on the ground. The team traced the stencil with a biodegradable liquid, removed the tarp, then retraced the shape. Next, they sprayed lines of colors across the interior of the shape to give people direction on exactly where to stand.

Earlier that day, the team had rehearsed the students and teachers in the school auditorium. The students were instructed to keep their toes on their assigned lines and stand shoulder to shoulder. The Holiday Valley Ski Patrol and staff (who were dressed in their yellow patrol jackets or T-shirts and formed the star) also received instruction.

On Tuesday morning, with the sun shining and the temperature in the low 60s, things really got busy. The stencil was touched up, the Ellicottville Fire Department ladder truck arrived, the sound system was set up for Watson and Sion to direct the shoot, M&T bank (which donated all the T-shirts) signed people in, and some invited guests, including the members of the local American Legion, were given more instruction.

At 10 a.m., the buses from ECS arrived. The students and adults, already wearing their assigned T-shirts, calmly walked to the site and lined up in rows at the sides of the tree stencil. Then, on Watson’s cue, they filed into the interior of the stencil.

From there, photographer Sion, who had the bird’s-eye view from the bucket, took over instruction, asking people to move a little to the right or left. When all was ready, it was “action” time. Everyone was told to “look down,” then “look up” at the camera. Each time they looked up, Sion got another shot. They were asked to wave at the photographer. Then they all danced in place to “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” Finally, in a very moving scene, the “tree” saluted the honor guard made up of American Legion veterans who stood in uniform below the tree while Watson’s talented niece, Vanessa Suarez, sang “God Bless America.”

In all, hundreds of photographs were taken. Watson, who marveled at the ECS students’ perfect performance, will select the best shot and have it printed on holiday cards. Those cards, as many as 1,000, will be back at ECS next week so students at all grade levels can write holiday greetings to military service-members currently serving overseas. The American Red Cross will handle distribution. Additional cards and other items will be available for purchase through the beneficiary of event proceeds, The Bob Woodruff Foundation, at

Why it Came Together

Watson was inspired after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, to do something to show support for America’s service members and veterans. Her very big idea was to take a patriotic-themed aerial photograph using the students at Cloverbank Elementary school on Flag Day, which is now an annual tradition.

“This is a great opportunity to teach children about patriotism and the sacrifices our military men and women make every day,” Watson said, and emphasized that she really has no other agenda.

The concept has grown beyond Cloverbank; she has now done similar images with other schools in New York and other states depicting the Liberty Bell, the Statue of Liberty, the Bob Woodruff Foundation’s “waving flag” logo and the word “AMERICA.” She also has done images forming the pink breast cancer ribbon, the Buffalo Bills logo and others.

Watson earns no income for her efforts. Most materials such as T-shirts, supplies and printing services are contributed, and she and her crew work on a strictly volunteer basis. Any profit from the sale of promotional items is donated to The Bob Woodruff Foundation. To learn more about Watson’s work, visit

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