WAXAHACHIE — It's fitting the six-foot Christmas tree representing law enforcement throughout Ellis County made its home on U.S. Highway 287 Business and at Waxahachie's Landmark Equipment — a company situated on the outskirts that seemingly watches over the city.
And especially given the road it took to get there.
Through the efforts of a former Lady Indian and current Southwestern Assemblies of God University student and her teammates, one holiday symbol helped a local charity and put much-needed smiles on the faces of some "boys and girls in blue."
"It really starts with Cheyenne Fults," Sarah Harman, the SAGU head softball coach. "We felt it was a perfect idea to honor those that protect and serve our communities and our team really enjoyed making the ornaments for the tree and coming together with Habitat for Humanity for a great cause. Law enforcement had a rough time and our team wanted to show support for the efforts they make. It hadn't been done like that before and we thought it might be a new and different avenue to raise money and awareness at the same time."
The tree, which is adorned with ornaments, lights and tinsel, is highlighted by the shiny badges hanging from its branches, the patches decorating its base and the vintage patrol cap that acts as the tree topper. Fults and the Lady Lions gathered badges and patches from Ellis County Sheriffs and Constables, Texas Department of Public Safety Troopers and Waxahachie and Italy policemen and women.
The idea spawned from an annual tradition created by Steve Howell, the head softball coach at Waxahachie High School, Fults and Lady Indian teams between 2011 and 2015. Fults, a sophomore, recently transferred to SAGU from NCAA Division I the University of Lousiana at Monroe.
"Lady Indian softball is where it started and we did one every year," Fults said. "Every member of our team was excited to help. Christmas is a big thing to a lot of families in the country and it was an excellent way to give back — not just to those in Waxahachie."
The tree was sold to Greg Burdette and the Downtown Men's Bible Study for more than $200 — donated to help eliminate poverty housing — during the Ellis County Habitat for Humanity's Nov. 21 Festival of Trees Benefit Auction. The tree was then given to Mike and Marla Lyle of Landmark Equipment after attempts to display it in the Ellis County Courthouse failed.
According to the Habitat for Humanity website, the organization uses volunteer labor as well as donated funds and materials to build simple, decent houses and sell them to low-income families at cost with no interest added.
Per a 2015 Census.gov study of Ellis County, 11 percent of the population — approximately 17,999 out of 163,632 residents — were at or below the poverty line. The median household income was $62,465 and the per capita income in 2015 was $26,367.
A two-bedroom, two-bathroom and 1,100 square foot home, for example, could cost between 100,00 and 150,000 in Waxahachie, Midlothian or Ennis.
Teresa McNiel, volunteer on the Habitat for Humanity board of directors, said building houses and relationships don't just ensure a better future for our community, it also offers people the opportunity to find answers to prayers.
"We believe in giving a hand up not a handout," McNeil said. "It's a great program for those that live in substandard housing and can't afford anything else. It's fun to see people who have never had a house finally own one. It's a great feeling."
The residual effect of the tree's creation may have been a big benefit to residents struggling to protect their families from the bitter cold of winter and torrid heat of summer, but the primary goal was to heal the rift between police officers and those they are sworn to protect.
"There were a lot of shootings and unnecessary deaths of policemen and women this year," Fults said. "We wanted to address a controversial topic with positivity, so we came up with the idea of a 'back to blue' tree to show that we're not only behind the communities, but also those who serve the communities. That's why we took the time to get the badges, patches and police hat — to show them that we care about the sacrifices they make for us on a daily basis."
Of the 64 officer deaths in 2016, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund website, Texas' 18 was higher than California (10), Louisiana (9), Georgia (8) or any of the other 46 states. It was also the most in five years.
This year's percentage of (non-accidental) firearms-related police deaths is higher than the last year's, too. According to the fund, firearms were responsible for 41 of 123 officer fatalities (33 percent) in 2015.
In 2016, that percentage jumped to 59 percent.
Despite the adversity that befell police departments from California to Florida and from Michigan to Texas, sometimes a single random act of kindness can go a long way on the road to healing the deepest of wounds.
After July's Dallas police shootings that claimed the lives of five officers and injured nine others, it was a memorial a day after that restored hope in the community.
In December, it's a little-known tree decorated with the badges and patches of the men and women that save people's lives by risking their own.
"Wow. Really? I hadn't heard anything about it, but now I guess I have to go see it for myself," said Wade Goolsby, the Police Chief for the Waxahachie Police Department, with a light chuckle. "With all the support we've gotten from the surrounding communities, it doesn't surprise me."
His first news of the tree was during an interview with the Daily Light.
"I am still amazed they would go out of their way to do that," he continued. "It just adds to the outpouring of support we've gotten since the Dallas shootings. The fact they would do that for us and law enforcement in the area is very special."
Marcus S. Marion can be reached at (469) 517-1456. Follow him on Twitter @MarcusMarionWNI.