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    Saturday, February 24, 2024

    Welcome to ‘Bolenville’

    Sue Rochester-Bolen, senior director of disaster services for eastern Connecticut’s division of the Red Cross, looks to her husband Fred Bolen as they pose with the holiday village display at the American Red Cross offices in Montville on Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Sue Rochester-Bolen, senior director of disaster services for eastern Connecticut’s division of the Red Cross, adjusts fire victims, wrapped in an blanket, in the holiday village at the American Red Cross offices in Montville on Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Sue Rochester-Bolen, senior director of disaster services for eastern Connecticut’s division of the Red Cross, relabeled a piece sold as a hospital to be a Red Cross office in her holiday village as seen at the American Red Cross offices in Montville on Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Firefighters and the Red Cross respond to a fire scene in the holiday village on display at the American Red Cross offices in Montville on Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Montville ― While the holiday season is in full swing, southeastern Connecticut still waits for its first dusting of snow. Last week, a few flakes fell, but only briefly enough ― and with such little impact to roads ― to make residents rub their eyes to confirm they had seen the snowfall at all.

    But inside the eastern Connecticut Red Cross Office, located at 1031 Route 32, snow has fallen in abundance ― over the streets and homes of a model winter village that looks as though it were pulled right from the reel of a Hallmark Christmas movie.

    On Sunday, atop tables and filing cabinets lined with red tablecloths, faux-pine garlands and warm yellow Christmas lights, sat 92 ceramic buildings ― diners, homes, fire stations, police departments, department stores, casinos and lighthouses.

    There were around 2,000 ceramic pieces in total, which included model cars and ceramic figurines, said Sue Rochester-Bolen, senior director of disaster services for eastern Connecticut’s division of the Red Cross.

    “It takes days to set up,” she added proudly as she stood over the village with her face cast in light from the tiny bulbs.

    “About four or five days to set it all up,” husband Fred Bolen added.

    The Bolens, who started the village some 20 years ago, can often be found inside the Red Cross office, where Sue works help victims of disasters, and Fred, now retired, keeps her company.

    Amid homes, bridges, farms, trains, sleighs and school buses was a sign that aptly dubbed the town “Bolenville - Established in 2000.”

    “That was a sign that said ‘Saint Nicholas’s Village’ or something like that. I said, oh no, that needs to change,” Sue Rochester-Bolen said, recalling when she changed the sign to commemorate her marriage to Fred in 2000.

    “It started out, like, probably almost 20 years ago,” Sue said. “We took a couple little houses and we put them around our fireplace.”

    Sue estimated that their collection had started with a church that was perched high above the rest of the village in the corner of the room, a bride and groom on its steps.

    “And then it kind of got a little obsessive compulsive I guess. And we started adding more and more and it kind of outgrew my house. And then one day I said something to my boss and I said, I really think it would be such a great, you know, I’m going to bring you down here to the office,” she added.

    The village has been growing at the Montville office for four or five years, Sue said, since the Red Cross moved its regional office from New London. Red Cross Disaster and Blood Drive volunteers help to set it up each year, she said.

    At a home in one section of the village, Sue had turned what was once a broken ceiling from when the model had been dropped into a fire scene. Cotton-ball smoke billowed from the open roof. Figurines adorned in Red Cross clothing surrounded the home, having come from the model Red Cross building a few blocks down the street.

    “I said, you know what? It kind of looks like it’s on fire. So hence, it brought the whole firetrucks.”

    Art imitates life

    “I deal with the hard stuff. You know, I was at Sandy Hook. I was involved in the Station nightclub fire. All these terrible things. And you know what? Setting this up makes people smile. It makes it a little bit better. It just makes people smile. And I think that’s the whole thing,” Sue said.

    “We can make a little bit of difference. You know, it might only be that little second that somebody smiles or somebody realizes that, you know, there are good things, it’s not always all bad stuff,” she added.

    Sue could not say whether the village would grow in size from its current iteration. She said one of her volunteers, a close friend, thinks the village is getting out of hand.

    Sue told the friend she wasn’t going to add any more houses. But that changed when she took a trip to Walmart, where two “Pioneer Woman” ceramic homes caught her eye.

    Despite the village’s size, which has to be separated into two opposite corners of the office, Sue said there’s still room for “Bolenville” to grow.

    “Kohl’s has a (model) bookstore now. I don’t have a bookstore,” she said, smiling.

    “This is my baby this year,” Sue said. “We’ll see what happens next year.”

    Starting this week, Sue said will be at the office Mondays and Thursdays from 4 to 7 p.m., and Saturday mornings. During those times, anyone who is in need of a snowy scene, or holiday cheer, are allowed to come visit, and even if Sue is not there, she said people are free to view the village from the office windows.

    The village will stay there until the first of January, she added.

    d.drainville@theday.com

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