Mavoni Boodoo, 5, stood in the cold outside the Hamilton Hill Arts Center on Saturday, waiting for everyone to gather around a Christmas tree that had been set up on a small patch of grass in front of the center.
The group of Hamilton Hill residents and local officials had just finished making homemade ornaments, and it was time for the main event: decorating and lighting the Christmas tree.
Boodoo, the most diminutive of several children at the event, was chosen to put the first ornament on the tree, and in so doing inaugurated a Christmas tradition in Hamilton Hill that organizer William Rivas said he hopes will continue many years from now.
“I noticed trees in other neighborhoods in Schenectady, and I decided we’re going to put a tree here in Hamilton Hill,” said Rivas, an organizer with Save Our Streets who grew up in the neighborhood. “We’re a community and we deserve it.”
Rivas said when he first started spreading the word about the event donations of ornaments came in from all over, different schools and organizations, and that the outpouring of support was encouraging to see.
“We’re going to have more ornaments than tree,” he said with a laugh. “But we’ve never had that problem before, so it’s a good time to have that problem.”
Rivas was joined by three city council members, Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara and about a dozen community residents who braved the December chill to take part in a show of unity for a neighborhood that was significantly impacted by gun violence this past year.
“It’s a piece of ownership, they’ll always be the first group that did this,” said Rivas, looking around the parking lot at the arts center. “It’s important to invest a new perspective to show our community we can work together.”
Angelica Morris, executive director of the Schenectady County Human Rights Commission, said the tree lighting event is a celebration of unity, family and togetherness.
“This is all about a celebration for the families of the community, it’s all about unity, celebrating the holiday, and letting the community know there’s organizations like mine and [the Hamilton Hill Arts Center] that are there for them.”
Jamelle Perry, 11, said he was proud to be among the first group starting the tradition in Hamilton Hill.
“It feels awesome and amazing to help the community in ways we could never imagine,” he said.
Rivas’ daughter, Gelonna Rivas-Parson, 12, said it felt good to provide a community Christmas celebration for folks who may otherwise go without a tree.
“It’s good that we’re helping people in the community,” she said. “Some people don’t get the opportunity to do this sometimes.”
Back at the tree, Boodoo was looking for someone to pick her up so she could place an ornament she made herself near the top of the tree. Santabarbara obliged, then jokingly lamented that he would probably be called on for his services again as the tree filled up with ornaments.
Schenectady Councilwoman Leesa Perazza said she came out to the tree lighting to recognize the positive work that Rivas and others are doing in the community, “and it’s Christmas!”
“When people get really focused and work together it’s important to come out and celebrate that,” she said. “And who doesn’t want to say they were there at the first?”
Councilwoman Marion Porterfield said she expects that the tree lighting ceremony in Hamilton Hill will get bigger and bigger every year, similar to the tree lighting event held annually in Schenectady’s historic Stockade district that has grown over time.
“I think it’s good and something that will grow,” said Porterfield. “I anticipate that’s what’s going to happen here.”
And judging by the enthusiasm of those gathered at the arts center on Saturday, where an impromptu group performance of “Jingle Bells” broke out as the tree became heavy-laden with glass baubles and holiday trinkets, only a grinch could doubt her prediction.