ELWOOD, Ill. — For the farmers of Will and Kankakee counties who volunteer with Wreaths Across America, the time and labor to receive, unload and transport over 10,000 Christmas wreaths to a national cemetery goes beyond a good deed.
“It’s an honor and a privilege. The farming community is very tight with the military community and they want to show their support. This is one of the ways they do that, that they say ‘thank you’ to the men and women who have served our country,” said Mark Schneidewind.
On the third Saturday in December, volunteers swarm over national cemeteries across the United States as volunteers place wreaths on the graves of military veterans.
The effort started in 1992 by Morrill Worcester of Worcester Wreath Co. in Harrington, Maine, when Worcester donated some leftover Christmas wreaths to decorate graves at Arlington National Cemetery.
The laying of wreaths on military graves grew, and in 2007, the Worcester family started Wreaths Across America, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to finding sponsors for and placing a wreath on every veteran’s grave.
In 2022, volunteers placed more than 2.7 million sponsored wreaths on military graves at 3,702 participating locations.
One of those locations is Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood.
“I don’t know what we would do if it weren’t for them. I can’t even say enough about them. They don’t complain, they line up however many trailers will be needed and those guys and gals come out and they are so happy to do it. It fills your heart to see it, farmers aren’t just farmers,” said Debbie Bennett, the location coordinator for the Wreaths Across America event at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery.
Bennett has been the location coordinator at the Elwood national cemetery since shortly after the organization was formed.
In the over 15 years that she has coordinated the event at the cemetery, the number of volunteers and the number of wreaths sponsored has grown substantially.
“I thought anything at a national cemetery was going to be huge, but that first year, there were only around 40 people and 30 to 40 wreaths,” she said.
In 2022, volunteers laid some 28,000 wreaths on military graves at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery. Each wreath is purchased through a paid sponsorship.
The public and military families can sponsor wreaths for family graves in national cemeteries and they can sponsor wreaths that go on the graves of veterans who do not have family to sponsor a wreath.
“One of these years, we are going to have a wreath for every grave. The wreaths only get put on a grave if they are sponsored. So, that’s part of what we do, is to promote it and get people aware of Wreaths Across America,” Bennett said.
The Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery has some 70,000 military burials, including casketed and cremated remains. The 982-acre cemetery, that was dedicated in 1999, has space for 400,000 burials.
The deadline for wreath sponsorships is Nov. 28. People who want to sponsor a wreath for a specific grave have to fill out a form — and the Will County Farm Bureau is one of the places they can do that.
They can also find that form on the Wreaths Across America Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery Facebook page.
Once all the wreaths have been ordered and shipped, it’s up to Schneidewind and a group of volunteers, led by Will County Farm Bureau board member Dave Kestel to meet the semis as they arrive.
Kestel farms in Manhattan in northeastern Illinois. He took over coordinating the wreath loading from his cousin, John Kestel, a few years ago.
Kestel’s father, Tony Kestel, an Army veteran, is buried in Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery.
Kestel coordinated the effort before his father died, but now honoring the military dead at the national cemetery has deeper meaning.
“It always meant a lot to me, but now that my dad is buried there, it means even more to me,” Kestel said.
Schneidewind said Kestel manages to maintain a volunteer group of close to 90 area farmers and helpers.
“All of them are willing to do it and honored to be considered and asked to be a part of it,” Schneidewind said.
Due to the size of the roadways in the national cemetery, semi trucks are not allowed in the cemetery.
So, the semis bringing the wreaths arrive at the Will County Farm Bureau building in Joliet. There, volunteers unload the boxes of wreaths. Each box holds nine wreaths.
The boxes are placed in livestock trailers and the farmers store the wreaths in the trailers until the day of the wreath laying. The truck drivers communicate with Bennett, Schneidewind and Kestel.
“Everybody always looks forward to it. I try to be the cheerleader for the group. I always go to the Farm Bureau building to help unload. I have a stock trailer from when my daughter showed cattle for 4-H. I got to know a bunch of farmers that way and we still keep in touch,” Kestel said.
Bennett said the Farm Bureau volunteers can always be counted on to be there when the wreaths arrive. Shipments begin arriving via semi about two weeks before the event.
“No matter what time of day or night it is, they always are there. They have met trucks in the middle of the night, they unload the semis, then they store them until the morning of the event,” she said.
The work of the Farm Bureau volunteers doesn’t stop once the wreaths are unloaded. The trucks and stock trailers line up before sunrise at the Will County Farm Bureau building.
With an escort from the Will County Sheriff’s Department, the line of trucks and trailers loaded with wreaths proceed to the national cemetery. Once in there, each truck and trailer has an assigned drop spot.
The farmer volunteers unload a specified number of boxes of wreaths at each drop spot throughout the cemetery.
After a brief ceremony, volunteers fan out throughout the cemetery to place the wreaths on graves. Wreaths sponsored for specific veterans have a form that lists the veterans name and grave location.
Bennett said that many of those sponsoring wreaths are spouses who are no longer able to get to the cemetery.
“We encourage people, when they place the wreath, to say the name of the person buried there. If they can, if they are able to, we ask that they take a photo of the grave with the wreath,” she said.
“I hear from so many elderly people whose husband or wife is buried there, but they are unable to get out there anymore. A lot of people will put their phone number or email on their wreath order form in the hopes that the volunteer placing the wreath will send them a photo and many of our volunteers do that.
“I hear from a lot of them that they received a photo of their loved one’s grave with the wreath on it. It’s just a great feeling to know we can do that for them.”
Even if people do not have a family member buried in a national cemetery or have anyone in the military, Bennett said the sponsorship of wreaths for veterans who are buried with no family members is needed.
“You can sponsor a wreath for any veteran. We also have people who sponsor a wreath for their loved one, but then sponsor one or two more,” she said.
“If you don’t specify a name on your wreath, we put them on the graves of the veterans with no families. We still have a lot of graves with no wreath on them.”
Bennett receives a list from the cemetery administration of the graves of veterans who had no family when they were buried.
Kestel said it is refreshing and reassuring to see interest continuing and climbing in the volunteer effort at the Farm Bureau level and on the day of the wreath laying.
“We get more interest every year. Especially in today’s world, when there’s so much anti-American stuff going on, this is such a patriotic thing to do before Christmas,” he said.
And the title of the wreaths?
“I will never refer to it as a holiday wreath. It is a Christmas wreath,” Kestel said.
For more information about the Wreaths Across America event at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, call Bennett at 815-693-3215 or contact the Will County Farm Bureau at 815-727-4811.