Mr. Harwood goes to Washington: ‘I really appreciated more than ever what it means to be an American’

Arab resident Randy Harwood dishes on his experience decorating the White House for Christmas

Arab resident Randy Harwood enjoys one of the Christmas trees at the White House. Harwood was one of 100 volunteers chosen from across the country to help decorate the White House for the holidays. (Courtesy of Randy Harwood)

ARAB, Ala. – When we first met Arab resident Randy Harwood, he had just learned that one of his dreams would be coming true. He was one of the 100 volunteers in the country chosen to help decorate the White House for Christmas. He spent the three days before Thanksgiving in Washington, D.C. working with other volunteers to transform the White House into First Lady Melania Trump’s vision of the Spirit of America. He then returned to the White House the following Monday for a reception hosted by the First Lady.

Harwood said, “Well, it was pretty amazing, but I have to say it was also one of the most humbling experiences I’ve ever had. To be in such a place of history and importance to our nation and me to just be a country boy from Alabama was overwhelming. I am so glad I got to go and it is something I will remember for the rest of my life.”

Harwood met volunteers from each state as well as Gold Star families who were also invited to participate in the decorating.

He said, “They get to decorate a tree in the White House that’s just for Gold Star families to decorate and no one else. I got to meet some of them and I met one lady who had lost her son in battle. Really touching and humbling to hear their story and know the reason they were there was to honor the memory of their fallen loved one.”

The volunteers worked 10-hour days from six in the morning until four or five in the evening. While the volunteers were not paid, they were fed breakfast and lunch each day.

The volunteers were broken down into teams, and Harwood was assigned to Team Jingle.

He explained, “You had Team Jingle, Holly, Berry and Twinkle. Team Twinkle is who put the lights on the trees. My team had the Blue Room, the Green Room and Red Room to decorate.”

Each team had a team captain and they were assigned tasks. The captain of Team Berry, sister of the captain of Team Jingle, stole Harwood on the last day. 

Each captain had a book that gave instructions on what was expected. A project manager for the First Lady oversaw the decorating and carried out her wishes.

Harwood said, “He was always walking around and looking at what everybody was doing and if he saw something he didn’t like- what he usually didn’t like was, ‘OK, you’re putting lights on that tree, but you aren’t hiding the wire.’ He was very receptive to our suggestions, and as long as we were following the guidelines, or input was valued.”

Harwood enjoyed meeting the other volunteers, including three other volunteers from Alabama. He described the group as a family by the time the decorating was complete.

He said, “Everybody is there for the right reason because they want to do it for their country and it was just a really awesome experience. Even after working all day long, everybody was just supportive of each other and got along great. That’s unusual. When you put that many different people from different backgrounds and states, you’d expect a little friction somewhere, but that never happened.”

Harwood worked on red berry topiaries for hours. He completed 12 of the topiaries.

“Those things,” he said. “I am working on those things for hours and they were very tedious, putting those berries on and they all had to look the same. I loved every minute of it because it was just such an honor to be there and do anything. I would have done anything they wanted done.”

The Red Room theme is “Games that Families Play.”

He explained, “It was Scrabble and chess and just different things like that. It was mostly board games.”

The Red Room is seen in a recent White House video showing Scrabble tiles spelling “Be Best” and wreaths embellished with chess pieces.

Harwood smiled, “I helped make those wreaths. I put the chess pieces on them. It’s pretty amazing to walk into the White House and see something you did hanging.”

The Green Room theme is “Christmas Stories.” Harwood liked how the room looked at the end.

He said, “The mantle has these little books, and I really liked it.”

It featured different Christmas stories and books by American authors.

The Blue Room has Harwood’s favorite tree.

He said, “It’s the biggest. It’s 20 feet tall and has around 7,000 lights. It is decorated with flowers of each state. Of course, I have pictures of Alabama.”

The volunteers also created handmade flowers for the Blue Room tree.

He described the reception as “mind-blowing,” adding, “To get to go back and get all dressed up and see everything done and the food. It wasn’t Southern home cooking, but it was still good food.”

First Lady Melania Trump came down to thank the volunteers during the Monday morning reception. She and President Trump then departed for the NATO Summit in London.

Harwood laughed because the volunteers rushed to peer out the White House windows in hopes of catching a glimpse as the President and First Lady boarded the helicopter waiting to take them to Air Force One.

He described the food at the reception as “brunch food.”

He said, “They had an omelet station, a Belgian waffle station and a lot of food that I don’t even know what it was. One thing they had that I recognized. It was these little biscuits with ham in them. They were about the size of a quarter and I could have eaten 10 of them, but I didn’t want to look like a hog.”

Harwood laughed when he admitted he stopped at the Chick-Fil-A drive-thru when it was over because he was still hungry.

There were many surreal moments for Harwood during his time at the White House.

He said, “We could just sit on the priceless antique furniture, I ate in the State Dining Room more than once. That’s where the heads of other countries have eaten. It was a little overwhelming emotionally. It kind of hit me, I had taken all my pictures and videos and I had eaten. I was walking around not really talking to anyone for a few minutes. I was just taking it in and it hit me where I was. This is The White House, the People’s House. It carries such a big place in our nation’s history. I really appreciated more than ever what it means to be an American. I can say that the spirit of America was really there in that group of volunteers. That was awesome!”

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Randy Harwood in the Red Room (Courtesy of Randy Harwood)
Randy Harwood and some of the red berry topiaries he created (Courtesy of Randy Harwood)
Red berry topiary (Courtesy of Randy Harwood)
Randy Harwood stands in front of the Christmas tree in the White House’s Blue Room. (Courtesy of Randy Harwood)
First Lady Melania Trump (Courtesy of Randy Harwood)