Photos Chris Forino and Renaissance Marquis

Walking into the dining hall at Renaissance Marquis, the holiday spirit is alive and well. Stockings are hung on the wall, each table features a beautiful centerpiece, bouncing light at Christmas cheer across the room. But before one can even reach the tables, the main attraction amidst all the other holiday décor is an edible masterpiece that has become an annual tradition, a massive gingerbread house where adorable elves reside. This elf wonderland sits at the entrance to the dining hall, complete with skylights that allow passersby the opportunity to peer in and see what the residents are up to.  

Elves aren’t so different from us humans, as it turns out. A peek into this year’s creation reveals Santa’s little helpers illuminated by firelight as they keep warm in their living room. The elf children are asleep, snug in their bed and the detailed interior is ripe with thoughtful touches that make it an attraction that requires multiple stops to take it all in.  

A growing league 

The Rome Redbacks are part of the United States Australian Football League (USAFL), a non-profit amateur sports organization founded in 1997. The USAFL is the sole representative of Australian football in the United States. 

The league’s website presently lists 49 clubs; that number nearly doubles with the fact that many of those clubs have both a men’s team and a women’s team. Like the Rome Redbacks and the Atlanta Kookaburras, some of these clubs chose for themselves distinctively Aussie names, such as the Birmingham Bushrangers, the Dallas Dingoes, the Nashville Kangaroos, the Wisconsin Wombats, and the New York Magpies.  

The USAFL has until now followed a one-team-per-major-city or state growth plan, a plan of which Kraska is not a huge fan. “I don’t care for that. We should have developed more regional clubs like the one here in Rome,” he says. “That’s what I’m working on now, developing regional clubs here in the Southeast. I want to introduce and develop clubs in places like Augusta, Greenville, Huntsville, Birmingham, and cities like that.”  

The love and care put into these decorations is beyond apparent at first glance, but for Dietary Director, Mary Wilbanks, this is a project that brings her joy through the joy it brings the residents of Renaissance Marquis.  

“I first started the gingerbread houses in 2012,” recalls Wilbanks. “Before that I had never even used a kit or built a gingerbread house at all. That first house was a replica of our building here that ended up being about eight feet long and three feet high, so it went from a small project to a rather large one in a hurry. Our residents enjoyed it so much that we have done it ever since. Watching them try to find their window and rooms and how much they enjoyed the little details inside was just so rewarding that we have done it ever since.” 

Mary Wilbanks

Wilbanks’ works of art are completely edible on the outside, but (other than one year), the interior décor is not. This allows her to add the fine details that complete the wow factor. From working ferris wheels and carousels to parade scenes representing the different departments of the facility and a western town, the annual themes change and evolve, building excitement for the big reveal when Christmas time rolls around each year.  

It took some time to refine the recipes and building supplies that work best for these projects of passion. The process usually starts in October in order to have it completed for the holiday season, but Wilbanks said all in all, it would take her a full week if she was to sit down and knock it out without stopping.  

“I wish I had clocked how many hours it takes,” says Wilbanks. “My position here is a working position so we are busy taking care of our residents. I have a wonderful staff that works so hard to help achieve that, and we take our job seriously. My assistant Tammy makes the gingerbread and it has taken us a few years to perfect the recipe. As busy as we are, we have to work on these gingerbread houses in stages, but it really is so much fun to do and we look forward to it every year.” 

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Wilbanks first came to Renaissance Marquis in 2010, working in life enrichment, but after two years in that department she stepped into the Dietary Director position and has been there ever since. Throughout that time, she and her staff have not only provided the daily meals for the residents but have gone above and beyond for holidays and special events. 

While many of the residents can leave on their own or have family come and pick them up, there are many whose family fellowship takes place at the facility. Holidays, birthdays, and special occasions of all kinds bring guests to Renaissance Marquis and the planning behind that is of the utmost importance to Mary and her staff.  

“We are a big family here, so when our residents have their children and grandchildren here to visit, we treat them as if they were our family,” says Wilbanks. “Scheduling is probably the hardest part, just to make sure we can accommodate everyone in their party. Once that is sorted out it’s about doing all the little things that make the occasion special. If they have a favorite dish or desert, we want them to have that, so we try to plan ahead. We really try to make it feel like home and provide all the touches of home right here at our facility.” 

It is this kind of attention to detail that achieves that goal; creating a home away from home for the residents and all their families. The place, the environment, and the amenities are all extremely important, and those bases are far more than covered but when it comes to serving the needs of their residents, the people are what makes Renaissance Marquis a special place.  

Mary Wilbanks is certainly no exception to that, and her annual gingerbread house project is just one of many examples of how her department take pride in their work. From Valentine’s Day to Christmas, holidays are done right, but they don’t take any days off in between either.  

“For me it’s just so rewarding to see the reactions of the residents,” says Wilbanks. “We work hard, but it is meaningful work so to see them enjoy a meal or a centerpiece or something like the gingerbread houses is what makes it all worthwhile. The holidays are great opportunities to do something special for them, but we do our best to make every day special here.” 

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