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Memories of loved ones live on at the Festival of Trees, which benefits Dragon Boat Charleston and its mission to support cancer patients fighting cancer

Memories of loved ones live on at the Festival of Trees, which benefits Dragon Boat Charleston and its mission to support cancer patients fighting cancer
December 2021

Get into the holiday spirit at the downtown Charleston Visitor Center through January 4

The Festival of Trees, a fundraiser for Dragon Boat Charleston, is held at the downtown Visitor Center. Trees are decorated in honor of those who have cancer and in memory of those who have died, such as Stephanie Strock (inset).

Stephanie Strock often described herself as a favorite wine: “Grown on the coast of South Carolina from the Lowcountry’s finest. This sweet and spicy blend is best paired with sunshine, salt water, good food, and fellow cancer haters.” So it’s fitting that her friends decorated one of the faux evergreens at the inaugural Festival of Trees fundraiser for Dragon Boat Charleston in 2020 with ornaments made of oyster shells and sand dollars in memory of the James Island mother of two, who had died of breast cancer a year earlier at the age of 38.

“It’s a really powerful story when you get to walk through the Visitor Center and see a tree decorated,” says Neves Richards, who stepped into the role of executive director of Dragon Boat Charleston in August. “Somebody had a tree that was champagne-themed. One was for a woman who was the life of the party, and her tree was a New Year’s tree with a top hat and feathers coming out of it. They’re all beautifully decorated.”

Presented by Explore Charleston at the Charleston Visitor Center, the Festival of Trees, being held through January 4, benefits Dragon Boat Charleston, which promotes physical and mental wellness of cancer survivors and their supporters through boating and other wellness programs. Visitors can browse the 25 trees and 16 wreaths for free and bid on their favorite for a chance to take it home.

(Left to right) Admission is free or you can bid on a tree at; Dragon Boat Charleston launched in 2003.

Last year’s Lowcountry Beach tree was special to the Dragon Boat “elves,” who carefully packed up the artificial trees and decorations to deliver to the auction winners, because Strock was one of their own. She had been a drummer on one of the teams, keeping pace as up to 20 members paddled the long, colorful boat.

“When you get a diagnosis of cancer, you feel like you don’t have control of your body,” To be able to paddle with a team and be competitive really gives people a sense of empowerment and strength they didn’t have before,” Richards says. “When you are with a team and pulling together, you are free of worries and the concerns of having cancer. You leave cancer on the dock.”

The nonprofit usually raises money during its annual Dragon Boat Festival in May, but in the beginning of the pandemic, organizers made the difficult but necessary decision to cancel the festival in 2020 and again this year due to safety precautions for the immune-compromised. Explore Charleston and Dragon Boat Charleston partnered to help fill the fundraising gap with the Festival of Trees at the newly renovated Charleston Visitor Center.

Since it launched in 2003, Dragon Boat Charleston has grown to about 150 members and competes in four to five races a year, winning the US championship for both Breast Cancer and All Cancer Survivor teams. Members practice up to five times a week on the Ashley River, launching from Safe Harbor Marina at Brittlebank Park. The nonprofit has expanded to offer wellness and fitness programs from November to March, when temperatures can be too cold on the water.

Members of Dragon Boat Charleston, which helps support the health of cancer patients.

Dragon Boat Charleston provides physical healing, as well as emotional support, during treatment and recovery. “The muscles involved in paddling a dragon boat correspond well to the muscle rehabilitation needed by breast cancer survivors,” Richards explains. “We have learned that paddling as a team of cancer survivors or supporters is good for all types of cancer, as far as supporting them physically and emotionally.”

Members reach out to those who are newly diagnosed and introduce them to the sport. “It’s a club you don’t really want to ever have a need for,” Richards says, “but when you do, it can be a lifeboat.”