Bejeweled Benevolence: Decatur woman creates memory trees as a benefit for the NCC

By Catherine Godbey | Living 50 Plus

Tucked away inside the closet of a guest bedroom, Martha Newman gets to work. Armed with a glue gun, cone-shaped shiny paper, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, watches and broaches, the 75-year-old Decatur woman creates glitzy and sparkly bejeweled trees.

She calls the creations memory trees.

Each bead, pendant and pearl she hot glues on a cone represents a treasured memory for loved ones.

“When I started this, I never imagined the impact these trees would have. But when I saw how people picked out different pieces on the tree and remembered when their mother or grandmother wore it, I realized how special it is,” Newman said. “Someone described this to me as my ministry. I think that describes it well.”

The idea for the trees began simply — as a way to raise funds for the Neighborhood Christian Center, where Newman and her husband, Tommy Newman, volunteer several hours every week.

For the Decatur-based nonprofit center’s Soup for Souls in the spring, Newman, who has previously donated pottery and paintings to the fundraiser, opted to cover a tree-shaped cone with jewelry.

The majority of the tree’s jewelry came from Newman’s daughter-in-law.

“When I asked if I could use her jewelry, she said, of course, because she didn’t wear it anymore” Newman said. “Well, when she saw the tree and recognized the pieces, she bid on it so she could pass the tree down to her daughter.”

The second tree Newman made as a gift to her stepdaughter, whose mother died unexpectedly.

“My stepdaughter found a lot of jewelry her mother and grandmother wore. I asked if she would let me make her a memory tree out of the jewelry,” Newman said. “When I saw how happy the tree made her and the memories it brought back, that’s when I realized the emotional impact these trees could have.”

The memory tree project expanded beyond Newman’s family when she noticed the quantity of vintage, damaged and out-of-style jewelry in the Neighborhood Christian Center’s clothes closet.

“We end up with a bunch of jewelry at the NCC. It is jewelry that is not really in style anymore and jewelry women transitioning out of prison and jail can’t wear to a job interview. I wanted to do something to reuse them and thought of trees,” Newman said.

The idea appealed to Pamela Bolding, co-director of the Neighborhood Christian Center.

“I just loved it. It was so beautiful and I thought it was a great analogy of our getting to see lives transformed,” Bolding said.

As a way to display the trees, Newman contacted her longtime friend and owner of Cricket by the Creek Lisa Jones. After setting up the trees at the Decatur store, Jones contacted Newman about creating two trees using her grandmother’s jewelry.

“Lisa posted images of the trees on Facebook and several of her customers saw it. From there, more and more people have been requesting memory trees. I even have a friend whose hairdresser in Huntsville knew about the memory trees,” Newman said.

The response surprised Newman.

Since beginning the project, Newman has made 20 trees, including three trees shipped to Florida and three trees for sisters in north Alabama.

Each tree is different, telling the story of the person who wore the jewelry.

“On this piece,” Newman said, holding up a completed tree, “you can tell she loves Mardi Gras. There are pendants with the words ‘Spells’ and ‘Potions’ on them. She also had beads shaped like rams. I may not know what the rams represent, but the family will. Instead of having the jewelry sitting in a drawer, the memory trees allow families to display them and celebrate the memories.”

To create the trees, Newman starts by making a cone form out of shiny paper.

“I went to an arts and crafts store to find a ready-made form, but they were too hard. And I couldn’t use a Styrofoam cone because, well, Styrofoam and hot glue don’t mix well,” Newman said.

She attaches the cone to a piece of wood and, using Gorilla Glue’s hot glue, winds necklaces up the form. She fills in the leftover space with lockets, broaches, charms, earrings, watches and pearls. Newman envisions the trees as centerpieces for holiday tablescapes or on the mantel.

Newman’s right-hand man — her husband — assists by removing the backs from the earrings, pins and broaches.

“It has been a joy watching her create these trees from people’s family members’ jewelry, giving them a tangible treasured gift of their loved one. We are so grateful for her and her husband’s willingness to give of their time in such a generous way,” Bolding said.

The trees cost $125 for a medium tree and $150 for a large tree. All of the money goes to the Neighborhood Christian Center.

For Newman, who started volunteering at the Neighborhood Christian Center after she retired 15 years ago, the trees represent a way to give back to the nonprofit organization, which distributes food bags, clothes and hygiene kits, teaches classes inside jails and prisons, offers holiday assistance and runs transitional homes.

“The Neighborhood Christian Center does so much good for so many people. I am amazed by the people who can go into the jails and teach. But, I’m not a teacher or a talker. I am a worker and a fundraiser. The memory trees are something I can do to help the Neighborhood Christian Center reach its mission,” Newman said.

To see the decorated trees, stop by Cricket by the Creek, 1517 Sixth Ave. S.E., Decatur.