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Gig Harbor woman selected to help decorate White House for Christmas

Gig Harbor resident Gaylene McCray had a dream that she had been turning over in her head for nearly a decade — she wanted to be selected in the White House’s annual contest to find volunteers to decorate the White House interior for the holidays.

And as the former owner of a balloon, gift, and decorating business, McCray has plenty of design experience under her belt. She knew that this was the year she was going to make it happen. In her application, McCray included plenty of photos of her previous design work on her boat and house.

In September, she got word that she was chosen among 8,000 applicants to travel to decorate the nation’s most celebrated residence.

“I was very blessed that I got selected,” she told KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson.

Why Dori’s Christmas tree is still up

The trip of a lifetime to the White House

The adventure, which took place Thanksgiving week, did not begin right at the White House. The first day, the group of design-minded volunteers spent the first day in a warehouse McCray described as “twice the size of Home Depot” that is home to all of the White House’s holiday decorations and much of its furniture. McCray enjoyed this rare, behind-the-scenes glimpse.

“For me that was an incredible experience, just to see the back side of it,” she said.

The next day brought them to the White House — but it was not the typical glamorous, spotless view that a tourist gets.

“It was very different because the White House was a mess, so to speak — at least the part we were in,” McCray said.

There were 51 evergreen trees, each about 14 feet tall and waiting for its individual placement and ornaments. Waterproof paper and a whole forest of pine needles covered the floor.

“It’s kind of like Christmas when you’re decorating at its worst,” she laughed.

This year’s theme, “Spirit of America,” celebrates all 50 states that make up the nation. This means that iconic images from cities across the country — including Seattle — can be spotted throughout the decor. A set of glass panels lines the East Colonnade, displaying etchings of prominent architectural works, including the Empire State Building and the Space Needle.

Every Christmas, the White House’s head pastry chef creates a special gingerbread house. This year’s design is a scale model of the White House, surrounded by colorful versions of the country’s other most famous landmarks — Golden Gate Bridge, Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, Gateway Arch, the Alamo, and, true to life in white, the Space Needle.

McCray’s assignment was to help bring to life First Lady Melania Trump’s vision of a cascade of red roses over the fireplace in the State Dining Room, just below the portrait of President Abraham Lincoln.

“We had to put 300 roses on there — they were all silk roses, and they all had to be cut,” she explained. “And then we had the silk fillers that went in it, and those aren’t just pushed in it — every one of those is hot-glued.”

Because the first lady wanted a lining of solid roses, 500 more silk roses had to be ordered at the last moment, bringing the total in the piece to 800 — all painstakingly put together by hand.

The winter wonderland premiered on Monday of this week. McCray has spent the days since recuperating from the work and enjoying New York City at Christmastime.

“It was very cool,” she said of her accomplishment.

Although the dream to help bring holiday spirit to the White House was one that she as an artist had cherished through both Republican and Democrat administrations, McCray has received some negativity for using her creative talents to benefit the Trump White House. It even lost her a longtime family friend. For the most part, however, people she tells are amazed and happy that she received such an honor, letting Christmas spirit bridge the gap between the political divide.

“We’ve got to stop all the hate,” she said.

Listen to the Dori Monson Show weekday afternoons from 12-3 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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