by Melissa Martin
It’s just after 10 a.m. on a Wednesday, and a handful of Brecksville residents are abuzz in the city’s community center. Surrounded by boxes of ornaments, ribbon and bows, their task is decorating four Christmas trees scattered throughout the building.
During such a busy time of year, it might seem that stringing lights and adorning bells and baubles as they land would be the most efficient way to deck the halls, particularly in a public space. But this group knows the trees will serve as a backdrop for countless family photos and community events over the next few weeks, so the volunteers are determined to ensure the result is anything but average.
Known as the Brecksville Beautification Committee, decorating for holidays, the four seasons and practically every other event in between is what this group does best. Founded in 1994 under the leadership of former city Purchasing Director Donna Shirer and Mayor Jerry Hruby, the Beautification Committee has been working for the past 27 years to enhance the best parts of Brecksville.
With the Brecksville Reservation of the Cleveland Metroparks and the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in its backyard, not to mention dozens of well-manicured neighborhoods, parks and other public areas, it’s no secret Brecksville is home to some of the best views Greater Cleveland has to offer. But that is only the beginning, Jane Zawacki, the committee’s president, said.
“Donna [Shirer] knew the city could be even more spectacular, and that [idea] is what we continue to aspire to,” she said. “It’s still Donna’s vision for the city that we carry out all these years later.”
In addition to designing the four Christmas trees in the community center, members decorate three trees in the human services building and another at city hall. The trees are rotated annually, with themes changing as frequently as they can.
“The process typically begins right after Christmas is over,” Zawacki said. “We start taking inventory of what we have and begin thinking how we can change things up the following year.”
Making sure the aesthetics never get stale is a priority, committee member Kathy Roberts said, noting the committee of more than a dozen self-starters in all age groups works alongside city horticulturalist Joe Dwyer and his department.
“Each one of us brings different strengths to the committee,’’ Roberts said. Some, including Zawacki, have a knack for design. Others bring strong organizational skills or are master gardeners. Almost all make for “excellent worker bees.”
“The good thing is there’s a place for everyone’s strengths in this group,” Roberts said. “Sometimes we don’t even know what those strengths are until we begin working together, and then everything just falls into place.”
Roberts said a friend recommended she join the group after her early retirement several years ago because of her love of gardening. Roberts, a master gardener, said she knew almost immediately joining was the right move.
“This is the best municipal project I have ever been involved in,” she said. “It’s such a fulfilling way for me to give back to the community I love.”
The Beautification Committee is charged with crafting seasonal planters downtown. They are known as the masterminds behind the whimsical “pot people’’ at the community center every fall. The pot people are sculptures made out of clay flowerpots that are painted and dressed to look like people. Other committee projects have included crafting the float for the city’s bicentennial parade, orchestrating garden tours, organizing the tree giveaway on Arbor Day and building scarecrows downtown in the fall.
“When I joined the committee, I never thought I’d be painting clay pots, but here I am and I’m pretty good at it,” committee member Donna Hulett said. “Since becoming involved with the committee, I’ve really found a skill set to tap into that I never even knew I had. That’s the great thing about being a part of [the committee]. You find out more about yourself, you find your niche and you discover everyone truly has a talent.”
The committee’s drive is what Zawacki finds most impressive.
“This group almost never rests,” she said. “They always want to expand and do more. Needless to say I’m always impressed by their dedication.”
One of the committee’s proudest accomplishments was opening the community gardens in 2016. With the help of the city administration and a team of volunteers, the group was instrumental in transforming one of the city’s unused basketball courts into a place residents can rent garden plots to grow fruit, vegetables and flowers throughout summer. Renovations were executed at little cost to the city, thanks to donations of time and materials from residents and businesses.
Due to increased demand, the gardens were expanded in 2021 from 80 to 110 plots at minimal expense, thanks again to donations.
“We knew going in that it was going to be a lot to tackle, but like everything we do, once we announce our commitment to the project, we’re going to deliver,” Zawacki said. The Brecksville Beautification Committee is always seeking new members and fresh ideas, Zawacki said. The group meets at 6:45 p.m. the first Thursday of the month at Brecksville City Hall. The group also has subcommittees, each tasked with different projects and events. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. ∞