Jan Borowicz and other volunteers on “Team Donner” decorated the State Dining Room of the White House for the holidays.

Jan Borowicz and other volunteers on “Team Donner” decorated the State Dining Room of the White House for the holidays.

Photo provided by Jan Borowicz


St. Clair Shores woman gets chance of a lifetime to decorate White House for the holidays

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published December 16, 2020

 Borowicz poses in front of a rose garden inspired tree decorated with gold ornaments, wisteria, winter berries, Peace Roses, miniature roses and cabbage roses.

Borowicz poses in front of a rose garden inspired tree decorated with gold ornaments, wisteria, winter berries, Peace Roses, miniature roses and cabbage roses.

Photo provided by Jan Borowicz

 Borowicz helped the team tasked with decorating Cross Hall attach red and plaid ornaments to trees.

Borowicz helped the team tasked with decorating Cross Hall attach red and plaid ornaments to trees.

Photo provided by Jan Borowicz

 The Blue Room of the White House is adorned with ornaments made by children across the United States.

The Blue Room of the White House is adorned with ornaments made by children across the United States.

Photo provided by Jan Borowicz

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ST. CLAIR SHORES — When America tunes in to see the first lady give a tour of the White House’s holiday decorations, not many know that it’s not professional interior design teams tasked with the job, but an army of volunteers that work feverishly for three or four days making sure everything looks just right.

In 2020, one member of that volunteer army was Jan Borowicz, of St. Clair Shores, who was able to cross an item off of her list of adventures when she was invited to take part.

Borowicz first became aware that volunteers decorate the White House each year for the holidays after watching an HGTV special during the administration of President George W. Bush. She was busy at the time with a career as a special education administrator in Utica Community Schools, however, as well as with her family and friends, so she didn’t get around to applying right away.

Nevertheless, it was something “that’s always been in the back of my head,” she said. “I don’t have a bucket list, but I have a lot of things I call ‘adventure intentions.’”

The St. Clair Shores resident retired three years ago and began doing some research into how volunteers are chosen for the honor.

“Every year I thought about it, so this year I thought, ‘This year is the year. I’m going to go for it,’” she explained.

Filling out the application on whitehouse.org, she first wasn’t sure if she’d be picked because there were quite a few qualifications she had to say “no” to: she is not a retired or active member of the military, a Gold Star family or a professional interior designer or florist.

What she was, though, was determined. After explaining on the application why she wanted to volunteer, she followed up by sending letters to those who might influence the decision, from the White House chief florist to the first lady.

And out of about 8,000 people who apply, on average, each year, Borowicz was one of the 80 to be chosen for 2020 — an amount just over half the number of volunteers usually invited to participate.

“It was an experience and an adventure of a lifetime,” she said.

That was how she found herself on a plane to Washington, D.C. the morning of Thanksgiving, ready to hit the ground at 6 a.m. Black Friday not shopping, but on preparing the President’s home for the holiday season.

Doing so doesn’t come cheap. Borowicz and the other volunteers are just that — volunteers — who have to pay their own way to get to the nation’s capital, for their lodging and dinners during their stay. The White House provided breakfast and lunch, along with a thank you luncheon the final day for all volunteers who help out throughout the year.

This year, before heading to the White House from the hotel, Borowicz said everyone was tested for COVID-19. A few volunteers were sent home because of the results of their test.

At the White House, the volunteers handed over their phones and cameras, donned green aprons and nametags, and were separated into teams. Borowicz’s team, Team Donner, was in charge of decorating the State Dining Room, which included two 15-foot trees and a mantle with garland. The room’s theme was meant to evoke the White House Rose Garden, so in addition to ornaments, festoons of yellow roses were included with the decor as a nod to the yellow Peace Rose that first lady Melania Trump added to the garden last year.

Upon entering the room, Borowicz said they saw stacks of boxes filled with decorations for them to use. They were told to make the trees look “very organic, like it’s sitting in a rose garden with all of the foliage growing out and about it.” There were stems of flowers and foliage, ornament balls and snowflakes and glitter balls for the volunteers to choose from. While some of the volunteers immediately began climbing ladders and placing ornaments on trees, she began organizing all of the decorations contained in the boxes so they could make sure the trees were decorated evenly.

“You have to lose any ego and be willing to be team members,” she said.

That was evident once her team got all of the ornament balls on the tree — lacy, glittery, red and gold — and the head designer walked in and instructed them to take 20 balls off each tree, then to remove the lacy balls, then to take 15 more ornaments off each tree. She said they were nearly finished polishing dozens of crystal snowflakes when he instructed them to send them to another room for use on a different tree.

But he was right, she said.

“I look at the pictures from the East Room and they just look perfect there. They sparkle there. He just had such a good eye,” she said. “You see how things change as things come together. You just know what’s right and what’s not going to work.”

Every White House staff member was a joy to work with, she said.

“From Secret Service to electricians to the food service to house cleaning, they were amazing,” she said.

Her team finished their trees in two days, then took Sunday to look over everything again, making sure all wires were hidden, making bows and helping other teams finish their work.

“What was really fantastic was, on Sunday afternoon when they brought the gingerbread house that sits in the State Dining Room, so of course HGTV was there,” she said. “They brought it all in and set it up. It all kind of came together for us.”

She and the other volunteers watched as President Trump returned to the White House from Camp David, where he had celebrated Thanksgiving with his family, although he didn’t mingle with the volunteers, likely due to COVID-19 restrictions, she said.

The ongoing pandemic did change a few things about the experience.

Volunteers were required to wear face masks at all times and ate their meals in three shifts to socially distance. There were no buffets this year, she said. Instead, everything was prepacked in closed containers for the volunteers’ safety. Borowicz said the only time she felt slightly uncomfortable was during the volunteer luncheon, when first lady Melania Trump came down to greet the volunteers and give a small speech after admiring the decorations.

Since everyone wanted to be able to see the first lady, “it’s like, hold your breath and pray,” Borowicz said. “Otherwise, people were very respectful and distancing, except for that one, 20-minute period.”

The reception, on Monday, Nov. 30, was the one time volunteers were able to walk throughout the halls and rooms with phones and cameras to take pictures of the final result of their hard work. Borowicz said she wandered through the rooms for about 20 minutes, snapping pictures of everything before she thought, why not try FaceTime with her family?

“It’s turned upside-down and back and forth. I did what I could, and they loved it,” she said.

The theme of this year’s holiday decor was “America the Beautiful,” and every room followed that theme on the State Floor, she said. On the lower level, there were spaces highlighting the official White House ornament, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the women’s suffrage movement, celebrating service workers and one tree full of ornaments made by children.

Overall, Borowicz said her time volunteering to decorate the White House was “quite an experience.”

“After the tour of the Rose Garden, we walked around, you could see into the windows of the Oval Office,” she said. “We walked up the steps and I thought, ‘This is the front door of the White House I’m walking through right now.’”

The volunteers were thanked for their service with a small box of candies from the first lady and a booklet of watercolor images of the holiday decorations.

“It was amazing. There were so many tingly, pinch-me moments, but there was not a negative experience in the whole thing. People were friendly, helpful. There were no egos, there were no temper tantrums,” Borowicz said. “It was a lot of hard work.

“We had sore fingers and our feet hurt and we were tired at the end of the day, but it was just so much fun.”

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