As I type, there’s a convoy of more than 150 semi-trucks transporting wreaths by the thousands.
No, they’re not headed to the North Pole – they’re on their way to Arlington National Cemetery. This parade of 18-wheelers and Patriot Guard Riders is escorting the precious cargo that will soon be laid on the graves of fallen soldiers.
On Saturday, the week-long journey will culminate at Arlington in honor of National Wreaths Across America Day. And at 12 noon, veteran cemeteries across the country and over seas will adorn soldiers’ graves with wreaths in an effort to remember, honor, and teach.
This ceremony that began as Worcester Wreaths’ company project in 1992 has since evolved into something bigger than him, bigger than his company, bigger than all of us, known now as Wreaths Across America. With a mission that’s inspired viral attention across the internet, it’s impossible not to be humbled by the groundswell of support triggered by the small organization in Columbia Falls, Maine.
The Beginning of Wreaths Across America
But, to fully grasp the significance of this organization’s growth or the impact their mission fuels, you must first understand how it all began.
This past September, Executive Director Karen Worcester shared their incredible story at Blackbaud’s annual conference for nonprofits.
The project began when Worcester Wreaths found itself with a surplus of 5,000 wreaths at the end of the holiday season in 1992. They used this as an opportunity to honor those who had fought and died for this country. With the help of Maine’s Senator Olympia Snowe, local organizations, and friends, the extra wreaths were laid on graves of fallen soldiers in an older section of Arlington Cemetery that had seen fewer visitors with each passing year. After that first year, they vowed that they would always lay wreaths.
“We realized it’s not enough to just say that x amount of people died in a war. What we have is so valuable, and the way you ensure its protection is to put it in the hearts and minds of kids. Symbolically we lay wreaths, but we’re working to make a real personal connection with generations for years to come.” – Karen Worcester
The annual wreath laying continued as a simple company project until a picture of Arlington gravestones adorned with wreaths, covered in snow was picked up on social media in 2005. Soon, Worcester received close to 6,000 emails from people around the country sharing their wartime experiences, stories of loved ones lost, and humbling appreciation for the project. By 2006, cemeteries around the country were asking them to send wreaths. So, with the help of National Civil Air Patrol, Worcester Wreaths sent seven wreaths in honor of the seven branches of the military to nearly 200 participating locations, and coordinated a nationwide wreath laying ceremony. With the Patriot Guard Riders as an escort, Worcester Wreaths’ journey to Arlington Cemetery evolved into a week-long parade with national media coverage.
The outpouring of support continued to spread, as people and organizations inquired about how the project could expand, sent donations, and volunteered to participate, leaving the commercial company overwhelmed and unprepared. In 2007, the nonprofit was founded with a mission to remember fallen heroes, honor those who serve, and teach children about the sacrifices made by veterans and their families.
Wreaths Across America’s Incredible Impact
Since its founding, Wreaths Across America has expanded rapidly with 46% year-over-year growth rate and revenues of $4.5 million, all with a staff of only six people.
Much of this growth is fueled by the inclusive community the organization is creating online and offline.
“The more you support other organizations, the more willing they are to share your message as well. I think that’s a hard pill to swallow for any nonprofit; you don’t hurt yourself by sharing the message of others.” – Karen Worcester
During a time when it’s so easy to take for granted the freedoms we’ve come to expect, it’s organizations like WAA that remind us what we have is precious, and comes at a great cost.
“In 2007, I met a young mother at Arlington Cemetery who requested we lay a wreath together on her son’s grave. After laying the wreath, the mother looked intently at me and asked that I promise not to remember her dead son, but to remember he lived and it was life that he sacrificed,” Karen shared. “I have never forgotten that. When you participate in something like this, when you meet the families, hear their stories and feel their appreciation, you become very aware. That’s the value and it’s what keeps us going.”
Support for Our Fallen Is Down
There are 240,000 headstones at Arlington, each one deserving of a wreath. WAA’s wreath-count at the end of the day yesterday was close to 120,000, but there’s still time to contribute. They’ll be accepting donations through Thursday, Dec 12 – please go to http://www.wreathsacrossamerica.org/ if you’re interested in sponsoring a wreath.