UTAH STATE PRISON — Each year, the Festival of Trees packs hundreds of highly decorated trees, tempting treats and a host of other Christmas goods into the 220,000 square feet of Sandy's South Towne Expo Center to raise money for Primary Children’s Hospital.
But as visitors fill the room from Nov. 29 through Dec. 2, there's a good chance many of them will be most excited to see the year's gingerbread houses. During the festival's 46 year history, the gingerbread houses have long been a fan favorite, with creations that range from the elaborate to the simple.
So, who makes these sweet houses each year? The mix of creators might surprise you.
The Timpanogos Women's Correctional Facility
It takes Lt. Rod Villamil and a small group of women inmates at the Utah Department of Corrections almost six months to shape and bake the gingerbread, roll out the homemade Marzipan and sculpt the coconut villagers.
“It’s a process,” inmate Rebecca Hernandez explained as she paints a tiny person with brown frosting. She works on the project each day from 3 a.m. to 3 p.m. “It makes me happy to do this,” she said. “But you have to plan for breakage. Everything is a challenge. You have to be patient.”
For inmate Sally Krivanek, creating an entry for the festival is personal. Krivanek's son had asthma as a baby and received care from Primary Children, help for which she is immensely grateful.
“That’s a really big part of this," said Krivanek, who has worked on gingerbread houses for 13 years. "A lot of us here don’t have a way to give back, but we can do this knowing it’s for Primary Children’s.”
This is the fourteenth year that fellow inmate Robyn Radcliff has worked on the gingerbread entries and she, too, has a personal connection to the festival.
“I have family that has benefitted from Primary Children’s. It makes it even more poignant," she said.
She lauds Villamil for putting the program in place and teaching the women not only to work with frosting and gingerbread, but also with each other.
“It’s a step toward the future as we try new things,” Radcliff said. "He’s taught us cognitive skills we can use on the outside (of the prison).”
Villamil, culinary supervisor at the Utah Corrections Department, came up with the idea 15 years ago and has been pleased with how the women have taken to his program.
“I go home and come back and they’re already here working,” Villamil said. “We work together. We make mistakes and we learn a lot."
One year, they made a mistake that they've never repeated: their house was too big to fit through the door. Villamil now knows exactly how wide each project needs to be.
The prison administration helps with the cost of supplies and the women work in a small room that is also used to store canned fruit. They use an oven down the hall and a rack to store pieces of drying gingerbread. Each of them contributes ideas for the gingerbread houses.
When their creations are ready, they invite the rest of the inmates to check out the results, knowing that their hard work will soon disappear out the door. They all hope their houses go to good homes.
“I’d like to see one purchased and donated to the hospital so the children there can see what is being done for them,” Radcliff said.
So fun it's "almost selfish"
In a flurry of candy and gingerbread, a mother and daughter in assemble their festival creations.
Cheryl Hammock, of Heber City, and Diana Hammock, of Midway, are both dedicated designers for the festival.
"This is our eighth year with Festival of Trees. Before that, we did houses, including a hot pink one, for the Children's Justice Center in Wasatch County," Cheryl Hammock said.
Both Hammock women make gingerbread houses from what they've dubbed "gingerbrick," a cake that is harder than regular gingerbread and holds up better. They make all of their building materials from scratch, including the gingerbrick walls and roofs, teeny tiny gingerbread bricks, the fondant — everything. A typical house costs Cheryl Hammock about $125 in materials and sits on a 3x3 foot platform, weighs about 85 pounds with 10-12 bags of powdered sugar on it for snow. She feels that the expense, however, is worth it.
"I do it for all the other kids and the families. It's such a giving thing. I can't miss it," she said.
Starting months ahead, Cheryl Hammock takes her time so the gingerbread can harden well, using a special frosting recipe that can stand up to the hot lights at the Festival. She puts LED lights inside to make the interiors glow. It's a process that requires not only time, but plenty of space, as well.
"When I'm working on a festival house, my house looks like Christmas blew up in it," she said. "It takes two of us to carry it to the car."
One year, like Villamil, her gingerbread house wouldn't fit through the door and she had to turn it sideways to get it outside.
But despite all the work and occasional mishaps, both women are dedicated to giving something that helps children — and besides, the entire experience just feels good. "It's almost selfish," Cheryl Hammock confessed.
Teri Beachley, of Elk Ridge, agreed.
"I am doing this because I love the kids. I have two children of my own, and they are so precious to me," Beachley said. "I teach baking classes to children to help them learn important life skills."
This is Beachley's first year creating a gingerbread house for the festival, and her entry comes with a dedication.
"My gingerbread house is titled 'Winter Wonderland.' It is dedicated to my own mother who has raised three Marine soldiers and three more stubbornly amazing kids," Beachley said.
These dedications are part of what makes the annual festival so meaningful for those who participate and attend each year. Many of the 600-800 hand-decorated Christmas trees are dedicated to patients cared for by Primary Children's, and each one sold means more money for future patients.
According to the Festival of Trees website, the festival brought in $2,622,903.88 in 2016 — and a small portion of that came from Cheryl Hammock's gingerbread house.
"I've never had one that didn't sell," she said. "And usually, I donate one and I buy one!"
If you go:
What: Festival of Trees
Where: South Towne Expo Center, 9575 S. State, Sandy
When: Nov. 29-Dec. 2, Wednesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Saturday, shops close at 8:30.
Tickets: Online: $6 adults, $3 children, at the door: $7 adults, $4 children 2-11, seniors 65+ $6, $20 for a family of six on Nov. 29