In December 2008, Amber Caron was conducting media relations work on behalf of a PR agency for Wreaths Across America (WAA) at Arlington National Cemetery. Laser-focused on making sure attending media had everything they needed, she found herself unable to soak in the magnitude of what was occurring around her.
“That’s when Karen Worcester walked up to me,” Amber said of the WAA Executive Director. “She took my clipboard and said, ‘I know you’re very busy and your work is very important, but I want you to put your stuff down and place a wreath..’
“Of course, I did, and then it really hit home for me. I’d only been involved for a few months and didn’t really know the Worcester family or fully understand Wreaths Across America yet. But the simple act of placing that wreath vividly showed me what this day is all about.
“For Karen and her husband (WAA Founder Morrill Worcester), this isn’t a job. It’s a passion. They’re coming from a place of true patriotism. They want to bring communities together and honor veterans who have made the ultimate sacrifice.”
World’s Largest Veterans’ Parade
The wreath-placing ceremony is still held annually, on the second or third Saturday of December. WAA’s annual pilgrimage from Harrington, Maine to Arlington National Cemetery prior to the event has become known as the world’s largest veterans’ parade.
It stops at schools, monuments, veterans’ homes and communities along the way, reminding people how important it is to remember, honor and teach. All of the wreaths and bows are handmade in the U.S.
It all started when Morrill Worcester, now owner of Worcester Wreath Company of Harrington, Maine, was a 12-year-old paperboy for the Bangor Daily News.
He won a trip to Washington D.C., and his first experience in the nation’s capital was one he would never forget. Arlington National Cemetery made an indelible impression on him.
This experience followed him throughout his life and successful career. It reminded him that his good fortune was due, in large part, to the values of this nation. And to the veterans who sacrificed for their country.
Wreath Surplus Jumpstarts Program
In 1992, Worcester Wreath found itself with a surplus of wreaths nearing the end of the holiday season. Remembering his boyhood experience at Arlington, Worcester realized he had an opportunity to honor our country’s veterans.
With the aid of Maine Senator Olympia Snowe, arrangements were made for the wreaths to be placed at Arlington in one of the older sections of the cemetery that had been receiving fewer visitors with each passing year.
As plans were underway, a number of other individuals and organizations stepped up to help. James Prout, owner of local trucking company Blue Bird Ranch, Inc., provided transportation all the way to Virginia.
Volunteers from the local American Legion and VFW Posts gathered with members of the community to decorate each wreath with traditional red, hand-tied bows.
Members of the Maine State Society of Washington, D.C., helped organize the wreath-laying, which included a special ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Iconic Photo Sparks Attention and Wreaths Across America Is Born
The annual tribute went on quietly for several years. In 2005, a photo of the stones at Arlington – adorned with wreaths and covered in snow – circulated on the Internet. Suddenly, the project received national attention.
Thousands of requests poured in from all over the country from people wanting to help with Arlington, to emulate the Arlington project at their national and state cemeteries, or to simply share their stories and thank Worcester for honoring our nation’s heroes.
The annual trip to Arlington and the groups of volunteers eager to participate in Worcester’s simple wreath-laying event grew each year until it became clear the desire to remember and honor our country’s fallen heroes was bigger than Arlington. And larger than this one company.
Unable to donate thousands of wreaths to each state, the nonprofit Wreaths Across America was founded and the organization began sending seven ceremonial wreaths (one for each branch of the military, and for POW/MIAs) to participating locations wanting to be a part of it.
In 2007, the Worcester family, along with veterans and other groups and individuals who had helped with their annual veterans’ wreath ceremony in Arlington, formed Wreaths Across America.
It’s a non-profit 501-(c)(3) organization that has continued to expand this effort, along with the support of other groups around the country that wanted to do the same. The mission of the group is simple:
- REMEMBER our fallen U.S. veterans.
- HONOR those who serve.
- TEACH your children the value of freedom.
In 2008, more than 300 locations held wreath-laying ceremonies in every state, Puerto Rico and 24 overseas cemeteries. More than 100,000 wreaths were placed on veterans’ graves and more than 60,000 volunteers participated.
And that year, December 13 was unanimously voted by the U.S. Congress as “Wreaths Across America Day.”
Arlington ‘Covered’ in 2014
In 2014, Wreaths Across America and its national network of volunteers placed more than 700,000 remembrance wreaths at 1,000 locations in the United States and beyond.
Including ceremonies at the Pearl Harbor Memorial, Bunker Hill, Valley Forge and the sites of the September 11 tragedies.
This was accomplished with help from 2,047 sponsorship groups, corporate contributions, and donations from trucking, shipping, and thousands of helping hands.
The organization’s goal of covering Arlington National Cemetery was met in 2014 with the placement of 226,525 wreaths.
2,557 Participating Locations in 2020
In 2016, this number increased to 1.2 million wreaths being placed at more than 1,230 cemeteries across the nation. In 2020, 253,000 wreaths were placed at Arlington.
“Each wreath is sponsored for $15, and even with COVID in 2020 we had 2,557 participating locations,” said Amber, who became Director of Communications for WAA in 2018. “Overall, 1.7 million wreaths were placed last year, thanks to 400 new participating locations, after having 2.2 million in 2019.
“We had a lot of support from our 3 million volunteers, a third of whom are children. Location volunteers and sponsorship groups worked hard all year to overcome many challenges in 2020 and hold safe and successful wreath-laying events.”
‘The Mission Is Year ‘Round’
One of the reasons a mid-December date was chosen for the wreath-laying ceremony is because the holidays are often when families most miss their loved ones who died or are away serving their country.
In many homes there is an empty seat for one who is serving or who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
There’s no better time to express appreciation than during the hustle and bustle of the holiday season.
“Wreath Day is a one-day event, but the mission is year ‘round,” said Amber, whose father served in the Navy during the Vietnam War and whose grandfather was an interpreter and translator in France during World War II. “It’s community based.”
Teaching Is a Key Component
Despite her family heritage, Amber said the veteran community was not something she was overly involved with or aware of prior to connecting with WAA.
“But now I’ve met so many military members and their families, including Gold Star families, many of whom are like family to me,” she said. “When somebody serves, the whole family serves.
“Unfortunately, schools often don’t discuss things like D-Day and Pearl Harbor anymore. Kids miss out on learning about service and sacrifice and character.
“I learned the most about it from those who have lost someone. They love Wreaths Across America because they know that someday when they’re gone, someone will remember their loved one in this fashion.
“Everything we do has a goal of teaching. Including the media interviews we do and the blog posts we write. We try to educate the public about good things happening in their communities.
“We provide materials that can be used for kids learning remotely, including a challenge we started last April on social media called #WePledgeAllegiance where we encourage kids to do videos of themselves saying the Pledge of Allegiance.”
Remembrance Tree Program
One of the ways WAA keeps the mission front and center year ‘round is through the Remembrance Tree Program.
“This was born out of relationships with Gold Star families,” Amber said.
“We let family members pick a tree on the tip lands in Maine where the balsam is harvested to make veterans’ wreaths. A replica dog tag is made for your loved one and hung on that tree and that becomes your loved one’s tree, a living memorial to someone who served and continues to serve still.
The trees’ balsam tips are trimmed every three years to make a wreath, to be placed on the headstone of an America Hero.
“We’re up to about 10,000 dog tags on trees now,” Amber said. “It’s free and the gates are always open. The trees represent a living reminder that your loved one is still giving back.”
Mobile Educational Exhibit
Two additional important components of the WAA mission are a museum and a historic home near the headquarters in Columbia Falls, Maine.
In the brick and mortar museum, visitors can see memorabilia from those who served. Including uniforms, metals and even helmets that were worn on Normandy beaches in World War II.
Next door is a hospitality house that is being renovated. Each room will be dedicated to a different military conflict and decorated in that era. Eventually the house will also serve as a bed and breakfast for Gold Star families.
In addition, WAA has a mobile educational exhibit that hit the road in late February for a national tour beginning in Texas. It features a 22-seat movie theater and interactive exhibits.
4Patriots Donates to WAA
Prior to the wreath-placing ceremony in December 2020, 4Patriots became a Level 1 Corporate Sponsor of Wreaths Across America with a $5,000 donation. This resulted in 300 wreaths being placed at Arlington National Cemetery.
“We have an incredible base of supporters across the country,” Amber said. “And we’re always looking for new people to reach who aren’t familiar with the mission.
“Because once you get involved, it becomes a part of you. We encourage everyone to participate. Even if you can’t give financially, place a wreath. Personally, I know that I’m never NOT doing this again.”
Anyone wishing to host a local WAA ceremony should visit the WAA website. Organizations wishing to partner with WAA can raise support funds ($5 from each $15 wreath sponsorship) for themselves. More information is available on the website.