HOULTON, Maine — Cecilia Rhoda of Houlton has always had a knack for adding just the right decorative touch to her family’s home during the holiday season.
Now, she can add “White House decorator” to her impressive resume. Rhoda, along with 124 other decorators and designers from around the country, was chosen to go to the White House in November to transform 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue into a winter wonderland.
“This was an opportunity of a lifetime for me,” Rhoda said.
Rhoda explained she had to go through a rigorous application process that included writing an essay on why she should be chosen. She could not divulge what she wrote in her essay under the privacy guidelines set forth by the White House.
Rhoda’s sister Claudette Greene of Portland also applied and was chosen by the White House selection committee to take part in the decoration experience.
“When the Obama Administration came in, the first lady felt that the White House was the ‘People’s House’ and that it should be decorated by the people,” Rhoda said.
Rhoda said she found out she was conditionally approved in September and was officially selected in late October. However, per the White House regulations, she was not permitted to talk about the event on social media or with mainstream media outlets until after she had returned home.
Transportation and housing were not provided as part of the six-day decorating experience.
At 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving night, Rhoda and all of the volunteer decorators had to report in at the Loews Madison Hotel in Washington, D.C. Each volunteer was presented with a set of credentials and an apron featuring the words: “White House Holiday 2016.”
Decorators then were given specific instructions as to which part of the White House they would be working on and what their roles would be. Rhoda was assigned to the White House Library and responsible for creating massive strings of garland to be used on the tree in the library and on a mantle, based on explicit instructions from the designers.
Her sister was assigned to the East Entrance, so the two did not see much of one another during their time there.
“The theme of the room was geared toward the education and leadership of girls,” Rhoda said of her area. “We were following the first lady’s designs, which were pretty amazing.”
Rhoda said security for the project was extremely high, as one would expect. Each morning, the crew reported for duty at 6. The first two days were spent at the White House warehouse, behind a barbed wire fence with Secret Service agents standing guard.
All of the decorations were stored in the warehouse and needed to be assembled before being transported to the White House, she explained. Rhoda was placed in charge of creating two 50-foot ceramic apple garlands that took 10 people to carry.
At the White House, volunteers were not allowed to take any photos of their work while it was in progress, nor were they allowed to move any pieces of furniture while decorating. Even something as simple as moving a chair had to be done by Secret Service personnel. Volunteers also were not allowed to go the bathroom without an escort, to ensure the decorators did not wander off into any off-limit area.
In total Rhoda said the volunteers spent more than 12 hours each day during a six-day period rushing to make sure the decorations were finished in time to be unveiled to the public. A reception for the volunteers kicked off that unveiling and featured a visit by the first lady. Rhoda did not get to meet the first lady in a one-on-one setting, but Michelle Obama did speak to the group as a collective.
“The whole thing was more than I ever dreamed,” she said. “It was intense, but I would absolutely do it again.”