It's the most wonderful time of the year in Casper and. for proof of that, we need to look no further than the 33rd Annual Festival of Trees, benefiting Special Olympics Wyoming.

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For 33 years, the Festival of Trees has provided Casper with an evening  of fun, fellowship, and Firs.

(Those are typically what Christmas trees are).

This year will be no different. Well, it will be a little different.

"We're really looking forward to the Festival of Trees this year," said Tara Short, the Vice President of Development for Special Olympics, Wyoming. "Normally we've done it on a Tuesday night and Teddy Bear Tea has been the Sunday prior. This year, we're doing it on a Saturday and this will be one of the first times that our athletes will be able to come together as a group and see their friends and other athletes."

Short said that this year, due to COVID restrictions, much of the athletes' training and competing had to happen virtually, which is why this event in particular will be such a special occasion for them.

"This is a celebration of them, for them," Short declared.

It will be a celebration for the general public as well, as it doesn't quite feel like Christmas in Casper until we're treated to the Festival of Trees.

This year's event is happening on Saturday, December 4 at the Clarion Inn. Doors will open at 5pm for a Happy Hour, and Hors-d'oeuvres will be served at that time as well. The Live Auction begins at 6:30pm and there will be live entertainment throughout the evening, provided by DJ Nyke.

Most importantly, the evening will feature harrowing stories of grit, courage, joy, and determination from a variety of Special Olympic athletes.

"Normally, we focus on one particular athlete and family," Short stated. "This year, it'll be a little different. We're focusing on Special Olympics Wyoming mission overall, so we'll be highlighting our athletes that will be traveling to the 2022 USA Special Olympics Summer Games in Orlando, Florida next year. Our athletes will be greeting guests with their medals and they'll be talking about what games they train and compete in. It is going to be a fabulous evening."

The Festival of Trees is one of Special Olympics Wyoming's biggest annual fundraisers, and the money raised from this even goes towards, literally, making dreams come true.

"This is our 33rd annual event and it's one of the largest fundraisers we do for the year," Short said. "You hear this a lot from non-profits, but Special Olympics Wyoming does not receive assistance from the government. There isn't somebody sitting at Special Olympics North America and writing grants or anything like that. We don't get funding from the government to sustain Special Olympics Wyoming. A lot of our funding comes from athletes, families, friends of athletes."

Short said that the organization does not charge athletes a fee to participate in Special Olympics. They don't pay the coaches, either. This is really a labor of love for all who participate, which is why events like the Festival of Trees are so pivotal to the sustainability of the organization.

"Our coaches train athletes in 16 Olympic-style sports over the course of a year," Short said. "And to have that high quality of coaches, they have to have extensive, high-quality training, and they still don't get paid. Our volunteers don't get paid either. So that funding coming from businesses large and small, in every community across Wyoming, is very important."

The coaches and volunteers may not be paid, but the compensation they receive comes in the form of seeing such immense joy on the faces of they athletes they are training. These athletes are people who, for so long, were told "You can't do this. You're not capable." Except, they can and they are. And everybody involved in Special Olympics knows this.

"That's why our staff is here," Short exclaimed. "Our coaches are patient and understanding, they have a kind heart. And what we get back is that we get to see the joy and experience the kindness from our athletes. That's why our staff chooses to be here. Every volunteer that we've ever had -  whether it be at a fundraiser or at sporting events - they come back because it's amazing how you can just feel the athletes' energy and joy."

That energy and joy will be on full display Saturday evening. It will also be on display Saturday afternoon for Teddy Bear Tea, which will serve as a "sneak peak" of the Festival of Trees for children and families. They will be able to look at the trees, meet, greet, and take pictures with Santa Claus, and enjoy cookies and hot chocolate. Dream Upon a Princess will also be on hand for children to take pictures with. Entry into the event only takes a new teddy bear, mittens, or, winter hat. This portion of the event takes place from 1pm to 3pm.

An online auction has already been taking place and the live auction will begin at 6:30pm. It will feature a wide-array of items, such as a wine tree, multiple gift baskets, a tree that holds multiple lottery tickets, and so much more.

Tickets for the event are $50 for an individual and $75 for a pair. Every dollar earned at this event goes towards making the dreams of countless athletes come true. The Festival of Trees is an enchanting way to begin the holiday season but, more than that, it's an opportunity to offer these athletes the chance to achieve their dreams. It's a chance to spend an evening in with fellow community members, sharing the Christmas spirit in a way that will impact others throughout the next year. And on this night, at the Festival of Trees, the only thing more beautiful than the trees will be the looks on the faces of the athletes as they are reminded that they are capable, they are strong, they are worthy, and they are loved.

Tickets for the event can be purchased here.

Downtown Casper Christmas Parade 2021