Wreaths Across America: They Gave Their Time for Us, Now Let’s Give a Few Hours for Them

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By Nick Reiher

Wreaths Across America will be held Saturday, Dec. 16, at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery off Illinois 53 in Elwood.
And to make it a special honor for veterans and their families who have passed away, organizers need your help.
The goal each year the event has been held is to have a wreath placed for each of the gravesites. The problem is, the number of gravesites grows each year, now totaling around 70,000.
But that doesn’t stop Debbie Bennett, who has overseen the local Wreaths Across America event since 2007 when she was in charge of Operation Care Package, and a group of volunteers and donors from trying.
Last year, donors sponsored over 29,000 wreaths to be placed on the gravesites at the national cemetery in Elwood. Organizers hope to secure at least 32,000 wreaths this year.
Some orders already have been placed to the Maine-based Wreaths Across America group, but the deadline this year is November 21. Any orders received after that will go toward the 2024 event.
Bennett said she isn’t sure how many orders total have come in. She knows of about 4,800 she has sent to the Maine office at this point. But most orders don’t come in until closer to the deadline. And some go directly there as well.
“People will ask me why their checks haven’t been cashed yet,” she said. “But remember, the headquarters in Maine is getting orders from 3,500 cemeteries in addition to organizations throughout the country. And it’s a small office.”
The Will County Farm Bureau, the Farm Bureau’s Women for Family Farms Committee and Farmers Weekly Review have helped get the word out about the event, as well as various fundraisers held throughout the year, such as spring and fall flower sales.
The Farm Bureau and Farmers Weekly staff also send order forms in October to all who ordered wreaths previously, and people can find the order form in Farmers Weekly Review.
But the growing number of wreaths trucked from Maine to Will County could not reach the cemetery without the help of Farm Bureau members with trailers.
Initially, John Kestel, former commander of Manhattan American Legion Post 935 and a frequent volunteer at the national cemetery, got the ball rolling by delivering 40 or so wreaths when they first started out.
As the numbers of wreaths grew, Kestel got Manhattan farmer Dave Kestel involved, and he used his own trailers.
“You can’t have semis going in to the cemetery,” said Mark Schneidewind, Will County Farm Bureau manager. “So, they had to unload them from the trucks coming from Maine and drive them into the cemetery with the smaller trailers.”
Now, a couple dozen farmers will use their trailers to meet the wreath-laden semis over a couple days in December in the Farm Bureau parking lot. They’ll load their trailers, 19 of them last year, and bring the wreaths back to the machine sheds at their farms to keep them cool until the big day.
While everything is pretty well synchronized by the day before the event, Schneidewind said they could have a few surprises.
“We got an extra 300 wreaths we weren’t expecting one time,” he said. “That was nice.”
The night before, he said, the volunteer farmers will get texts about what section or sections of the cemetery they’ll need to drive to and how many to drop.
They’ll meet up in the Farm Bureau parking lot around 5:30 a.m. the day of the event, and about an hour later, begin a procession to the cemetery, led by seven or eight Will County Sheriff’s cars with lights flashing.
Not only is the police escort a nice tribute, Schneidewind said it’s for safety.
“Even at 6:30 in the morning, there is a lot of traffic on Illinois 53,” he said. “The sun will be coming up when we get to the cemetery, which makes for a nice picture.”
Sometimes, they’ll stick around after dropping the wreaths at the assigned sites, Schneidewind said. But more often, they’ll want to get their trailers out of the way so volunteers can place the wreaths.
Speaking of which, Bennett said, she could use some volunteers, and not just to place the wreaths.
“Everyone wants to place the wreaths,” she said. “You can just show up for that. But we need volunteers to help with parking and other duties around the cemetery.”
And she knows she’ll need more than actually needed, because, well, things happen at the last minute, especially with families.
“But people who volunteer need to know they’ll need to be working from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. that day, in all kinds of weather.”
Those who’d like to volunteer are asked to email Bennett at [email protected] sooner than later.
The ceremony will begin at 11 a.m. that day, with Dan Schliffka of New Lenox, ROTC director at Lincoln-Way High School, once again leading the program.
The work is nearly year-round, Bennett said, with maybe a little gap around the spring, with her big push starting in August.
She closed Operation Care Package and is now retired. She is thankful Wreaths Across America keeps growing each year, and for the help she gets in putting it together.
“It takes a big team to make it successful.”
To join the team, email Bennett at [email protected].

Nick Reiher is editor of Farmers Weekly Review.

 

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