The Richmond State Supported Living Center Preserves Christmas magic through Project Noel

Chaplain Billy Guerrero, John Valimattathil, Steve Hathaway and Paige Adelaide.

By M.G. Angulo | Photos by Alisa Murray Photography –

Amid a now highly-commercialized holiday season, hope is found in Richmond. Hope for Christmas nostalgia. Hope for a continuation of classic community. Hope for finding joy in the beautiful but simple things in life.

Just as it has been the case since 1973, the Richmond State Supported Living Center (RSSLC), formerly known as the Richmond State School, will again host its annual Christmas tradition, Project Noel, which will open at 6 pm on Friday, November 30th.

Project Noel will run, for free, from 6 pm to 9 pm nightly from November 30th through January 1st, but on the first two weekends – November 30th – December 2nd and December 7th through December 9th – visitors will have a chance to meet a very special guest.  Santa will be at Project Noel and visitors can take photos with him after completing the tour.

“There will also be food trucks with hot chocolate during those two weekends,” said Judy Schmid, a Richmond State Supported Living Center Volunteer Services Council board member who has been involved with the center since 1981, the enthusiasm for the special holiday project clear in her voice.

Hosted by the center’s Volunteer Services Council, Project Noel is a collection of sparkling lights and more than 60 Christmas-themed scenes that range from Star Wars and the Grinch to classic favorites like Mr. and Mrs. Claus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  Guests can view the decorations and scenes from the comfort of their car as they cruise the 241-acred decorated campus at 2100 Preston Street in Richmond.

“It started out with just large Christmas cards on the light poles,” said Schmid. “And over the years, it evolved into what it is today. We have three-dimensional displays and animated ones, too.  I just love this project so much. I enjoy watching it go up. I enjoy greeting people at the gates when they arrive. I enjoy all the memories I had helping make displays years ago.”

Judy Schmid and resident of RSSLC Walter Wingo.

The memories of each former holiday season are still fresh with Schmid, and when she thinks of each one, each with its own quirks and lessons, she cannot help but laugh sweetly. “It is something we have a lot of fun doing,” she said of the yearly construction of Project Noel. “And it’s done with love.”

50 Years of Service

Although seemingly tucked away in its own world, the Richmond State Supported Living Center in Richmond is a root that runs deep in the Fort Bend community. In April the center celebrated 50 years of service with a special celebration that featured state representatives, senators and judges from Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Hardin, Harris, Jefferson, Matagorda, Orange, Waller and Wharton counties, all of which the center serves.

The center opened April 15, 1968 as a result of state legislation and The George Foundation. It was in 1961 that the Texas Legislature approved the establishment of the state school for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the Gulf Coast area, and following that approval, a group of local residents asked The George Foundation for support in funding a local center.

Richmond State Supported Living Center

Thirty-year volunteer BJ Donegan and 27-year volunteer Donna Wasser at the Country Store.

The Richmond State Supported Living Center offers opportunities, through its Volunteer Services Council, for the community to get involved, including the following:

Displays for Project Noel: Construct, paint or repair exhibits displayed during the Christmas holidays. New displays can be constructed of wood, metal, paper mache`, etcetera. Also, many of the older displays are in need of re-construction.

Wrap Parties: Each man and woman residing at the center will receive birthday and Christmas gifts each year. This equates to more than 1,000 gifts. The center needs service groups of no more than 10 people per two-hour shift to help wrap these gifts. Parties begin the first week in November and last to the middle of December.

Play Santa or His Elves: Help is needed to play Santa and/or his elves during Project Noel. Costumes are provided for volunteers.

Visit with Individuals: Read stories, play games and assemble puzzles, assist with various arts and crafts projects and assist an individual in creating a scrapbook.

The Campus Resale Shop: Sort through donations and operate all aspects of the Country Store, including helping individuals shop. Hours of operation are Tuesdays and Fridays from 10 am to 2:30 pm.

Assist at the Therapeutic Riding Center: SIRE is a non-profit organization whose mission is to improve the quality of life for people with special needs through therapeutic horsemanship activities and therapies and educational outreach.

Vegas Texas Style Volunteers: Volunteer for the Vegas Texas Style fundraising event.

Personal Advocate for an Individual: Become a friend to an individual that encourages the person to make clear and rational decisions.

Guardian Ship Committee: Volunteers will be a resource for people interested in becoming a guardian for an individual residing at the center.

Human Rights Committee: Ensure the safety, welfare and protection of human, constitutional and special/additional rights of individuals receiving services at the center.

Assist with Religious Services: Assist with ongoing faith services and important celebrations for individuals to include Catholic, Jewish and other religions, or volunteer to take individuals to area churches for community integration experiences.

Stage Concerts or Theatrical Performances: Sing and/or play musical instruments with a group or individually for the people living at the center.

Party with the Individuals: Host a party for one or more homes on campus, or host a campus event for all individuals.

Adopt a Flower Bed: Place your name and/or your organization’s name in a flower-bed that you maintain or help individuals maintain.

To become a volunteer at the Richmond State Supported Living Center, visit

Baylee Byrd with Santa (James Marshall), Mrs. Claus (Luella Marshall) and Shelby Byrd.

The foundation agreed and donated the very land that the center currently sits on. Construction on the center began in October 1965, and when it opened in 1968, 40 residents called it home. Today the center serves more than 300 residents, has a staff of more than 1,250 full-time employees and is Fort Bend County’s sixth largest employer.

Progress with the times is a trend evident at the Richmond State Supported Living Center, but with that progress, the center has preserved many traditions, including its most treasured one: Project Noel. What makes this annual tradition so unique, however, is that children who grew up in the early 1970s, when Project Noel made its debut, also took their children and then their grandchildren to the Christmas tour. And when those grandchildren got older and started families of their own, they, in turn, began taking their children.

And the beautiful cycle continues. “So many generations have enjoyed Project Noel, and it’s still as magical as that first time,” said Schmid. “I know I still look forward to it every single year.”

A Tradition Preserved

The idea for Project Noel was born in 1970, starting with the decision to decorate all of the light posts at the school like candy canes. The goal was to introduce a morale booster of sorts to the staff, allowing them a chance to unite and be creative over something fun and wholesome that they, as well as the residents, could enjoy.

Setting up Christmas displays: John Valimattathil, Steve Hathaway, Andrew Deleon and Mark Springer.

Three years later, Rick Manuel, the center’s former maintenance technician, decided to enhance the effort by turning Project Noel into the popular tradition it is today. Manuel remained in charge until he retired, which is when the Volunteer Services Council of the Richmond State Supported Living Center took over the annual program.

Residents of the center eventually began helping staff with the Christmas displays, taking the opportunity to showcase to the surrounding communities the talent found at the center. Talent to make the holiday season tangible. Talent to evoke a precious wistfulness for times long gone.

“It used to be, in the olden days, that we were the only place to go for Christmas displays like that,” Schmid added. “But of course, over the years, neighborhoods starting doing that.”
But instead of dividing itself from the community, the Richmond State Supported Living Center opened its arms, welcoming Christmas displays from the public. “It has been great getting the community involved,” Schmid said. “Last year people from the community created some scenes from us, and yes, they were amazing. And some others are making displays this year.”

This, Schmid said, is what being a part of a community is all about. And in light of a massive influx of people to Fort Bend who did not grow up in the Richmond-Rosenberg area, the Richmond State Supported Living Center is trying to increase knowledge about Project Noel, so that those who did not grow up with it are informed of its existence. “I think there are a lot of people who don’t know about what we do here, and as a result, Project Noel has taken a bit of a back seat,” shared Schmid. “But we want the new people in our community to see what we have to offer.”

And what Project Noel offers is a chance to make warm and pure memories that can impact people for decades to come. It offers a reminder of what the season is all about — love, community and finding the simple pleasures in life.

“When we greet people at the gates of Project Noel, I always hear some of them say: ‘My grandmother used to bring me when I was a kid,’ or something like that. That’s always nice to hear.”

Just like every year before, Schmid finds herself getting excited about this year’s event. And if anyone visits Project Noel on the second weekend, chances are he or she will see Schmid’s smiling face at the gates. “I love the atmosphere of Project Noel, and I love seeing families come back again and again.”

For more information about the Richmond State Supported Living Center or Project Noel, visit