By Paige Benedetto
On Second Street, an already unique tree has become a completely special after the VanWingerden family decided to make a change.
Many people who wander down 2nd Street towards the beach have probably passed the tree with the face on it. Owner Jean MacDonald decided to put a face on the tree outside of her home many years ago, but three years ago the tree with a face on it was officially given a name – The Free Tree.
Rhonda VanWingerden, and her two daughters Hannah and Lily, who live with Jean, transformed the tree into something that allowed them to give back to their community.
For years Rhonda and her girls would go down to the beach after the crowds left and help clean up; they would pick up trash, but also they would pick up beach toys that people forgot or left behind.
“We started having drawers full of all these beach toys, and we thought this is ridiculous. There is no way we can ever play with this many toys,” Rhonda said.
So the family decided to start putting toys out by the tree with the face on it so people could come and go and take what they would like.
“We certainly couldn’t use all of this, so we decided to offer it out to the community,” Rhonda said
“So next we put out the pegs with the hands and the Free Tree was made. The toys come and go, and some people do take them, and some people come and trade. It can be a long process, we have had kids standing outside our house for 15 minutes trying to decide which one of their own toys they would like to trade for something on the tree. Other people take a toy down and use it for the day and place it back up there so someone else can use it. It is sort of a give and take and free flowing collection of toys that is constantly changing,” Rhonda said.
Rhonda’s daughters truly do find such happiness in this tree, and that is another motivation behind keeping the tree running. The family loves to clean the beaches, give back to the community, and bond with each other.
“We try to live a life where we are always giving back and 2nd Street is just wonderful, and we love Ocean City. Anything we can do to improve the neighborhood we will, and this tree is sort of just an extension of that to offer to the community of visitors and of people who live here,” Rhonda said.
Just recently, the most unique thing yet happened to the family and their tree. Someone left a note on the tree thanking them for making their vacation extra special.
The Free Tree is rooted in genuine kindness without an agenda, and the next time you are walking down 2nd Street towards the beach stop by and take, leave, or trade a beach toy.