By Lauren Seaton, as told to Katherine Martinelli
In November 2013, I was sitting in the East Room of the White House hot gluing ornaments while looking up at the portrait of George Washington. The President's dogs were running around as 61 volunteers representing every state worked to decorate each room according to the theme selected by Michelle Obama. It was very surreal.
Every year since I was little, I have watched the White House Christmas show with my mom on HGTV. I always noticed the volunteers in the background, and thought it would be really cool to be one of them. I make wreaths and love doing decorations and trees, but I still didn't think I would know how to be a volunteer at the White House.
In 2013, the year I was getting married, my mother-in-law encouraged me to volunteer, but I was hesitant. I'm a nurse, and with my job and planning my wedding, I thought the commitment would be too time consuming. But my mother-in-law found the volunteer information on the White House website and said I should apply. So I did.
I sent pictures of trees I had decorated and wreaths I had made, and wrote a paragraph or two about why I wanted to decorate the White House. I figured I'd never hear back. That was April. In September, I got an email, and realized that I had missed a message from the White House social secretary. I had been accepted to be a volunteer for 2013. I was super excited!
After getting my security clearance, I flew to Washington, DC on Thanksgiving Day. All the volunteers gathered to pick up their aprons and volunteer tags. The organizers try to get a volunteer from every state, so I met tons of people, many of whom I still keep in touch with because it was such a neat experience.
Gathering the materials
The next day, we met in the lobby at 6 a.m., signed non-disclosure agreements, and got on a bus to a warehouse where they store everything from the White House and past presidents. It's really neat.
We were there for three days, and worked in different groups based on all the rooms in the White House. I was assigned the East Room, which is the largest room on the State Floor where they do all the parties.
At this point in the process, the first lady (in this case, Michelle Obama) already has a theme in mind, which hasn't yet been released to the press. Our job was to go through tons and tons of boxes that are full of ornaments and decorations - all selected by Michelle Obama and checked by the Secret Service - and figure out what to do. We knew how many trees, wreaths, and mantles were in each room, and had to come up with ideas.
There is a design lead on each team who has significant experience. The designer for Louis Vuitton was the lead on my team. No big deal (!).
Once we had everything picked out, we had to box it all up without bubble wrap or anything protecting even the glass ornaments, since the bomb dogs wouldn't be able to smell through it. Then we spent the next four days at the White House.
A surprise visitor
In the East Room, we had four 20-foot trees, four mantles, four huge wreaths over the mantles, and more wreaths in each of the windows.
It was really hard work. We worked from six in the morning until five at night. But while we were there, we got to eat in the State Dining Room each day for lunch, which was really fun, and we basically had free rein to be in the White House.
We finished the East Room pretty fast even though it was the biggest room, so then I was assigned the North Portico entrance. I was able to take a few people from my group to decorate the two trees there, which took a day and a half. It's so interesting, because the Secret Service guys are standing right there, and senators and congressmen stopped by just to see what we were doing.
One day when we were putting on the tree skirt and were all covered in glitter, someone leaned down over us - and it was President Barack Obama! He was like, "What are you guys doing?"
Normally he's not allowed to come down until the decorations are finished and the Secret Service has checked them, but apparently he was in a really good mood and wanted to come say hi to everybody. We were all in shock! We got glitter on his suit, which was funny. It was really neat, and he thanked us.
In the spotlight
HGTV came and filmed for the “White House Christmas” show. On the last day of decorating, Michelle Obama's aide chose 10 of us to be in each room for the press tour. The press tour is when Michelle Obama announces the theme on national television, and Gold Star families (the relatives of military casualties) get to be the first ones to see the decorations.
I was in the Vermeil Room with all the first ladies' portraits, which I didn't even decorate, but I had to know all the facts and details about the room. Then the reporters from CNN, NPR, Fox, and other outlets came in and asked us to tell them about the room.
Finally, that night we had a Christmas party at the White House with all the volunteers and their families. Michelle Obama came and thanked everybody.
It took a whole week, and it's unbelievable to me how much work it is decorating that whole house. Every room and hallway is decorated. I was exhausted by the end. But it's so much fun. It's very different being there as someone who's working behind the scenes, rather than just being a guest and walking through. We all cried multiple times a day when we were in the White House, because it's very overwhelming. It doesn't seem real.
At the end, the organizers gave us the traditional White House Christmas card, and a couple of months later, Michelle Obama sent us all a letter thanking us.
It's neat being at the White House with all the history, after seeing it on TV your whole life and wondering what it's like to be there. If you enjoy Christmas and decorating, it’s so much fun and such an honor to be there. Don't be afraid to apply!