The giving spirit of Christmas 2009 has already left its mark on the gravesites of Madison County's veterans and on the hearts of the volunteers who lovingly placed red-bowed wreaths on those gravesites.

On a cold, gray fall morning, more than 100 volunteers armed with greenery and hammers walked the grounds of Maple Hill Cemetery to place 2,200 holiday wreaths on veteran gravesites. The next day, they visited Valhalla Memory Gardens where another 560 wreaths were placed on veteran gravesites. Now in its third year, the project - known locally as Wreaths for Veterans and nationally as Wreaths Across America - continues to grow larger in terms of volunteers and organizations involved.

"People are so supportive of this," Wreaths for Veterans chairperson Joy Parker said. "It's unbelievable. It warms your heart.

"Because the veteran has given us the freedom we enjoy today we want to give back a token in remembrance and honor. We're putting these wreaths on gravesites to honor and remember our fallen veterans here in Madison County. We are doing this to give a little back."

Parker and co-chair Jennifer Hames, who are both military wives and members of the Redstone Garden Club, started Wreaths for Veterans after seeing a picture of holiday wreaths decorating the snowy gravesites at Arlington National Cemetery. They started the project with the help of the Redstone Garden Club, although now it involves volunteers from several other local groups.

"I saw that beautiful picture at Arlington Cemetery and I thought 'Why can't we do this in Madison County''" Hames said on Nov. 18 as wreath decorating operations were winding down at Maple Hill Cemetery. "I sent the first e-mail that started this whole thing rolling. People are so willing to help us because they are aware of veterans and what they have done for our country."

By taking on the project, the Redstone Garden Club made Huntsville the first city in Alabama and one of the first in the Southeast to participate in Wreaths Across America. Since then, the club has encouraged the cities of Madison and Birmingham in their participation in the program. Mobile, Talladega, Fort Mitchell and the Alabama National Cemetery in Montevallo also participate.

As part of the Wreaths Across America program, local organizers have planned official Wreath Laying Ceremonies in Madison County for Dec. 12 - one at 10 a.m. at Valhalla and the other at 2 p.m. at Maple Hill.

"This will be a very special ceremony for all our veterans, and the families of veterans and the public are invited to come out and make this part of their holiday recognitions," Parker said. "Each branch of service will be represented, and we will lay a ceremonial wreath on the veterans monument at Maple Hill."

When Wreaths for Veterans began three years ago, volunteers placed wreaths on the gravesites of 650 veterans. That increased to 1,500 the next year as more veteran gravesites were located and the number of volunteers grew. This year, Wreaths for Veterans has placed more than 2,700 wreaths at Maple Hill and Valhalla.

Finding those veteran gravesites has been an effort in itself.

"The cemetery doesn't keep track of where veterans are buried," Parker said. "We've actually walked the cemetery to find the veterans."

And getting the wreaths purchased and prepared for decorating the gravesites has taken several volunteer hours. Volunteers spent two days fluffing wreaths and hand-making bows at the Veterans Memorial Museum.

"The museum has been awesome to allow us to use their space and help us," Hames said.

So, too has Michael's, which provided wreaths and bows at cost, and Cat Bird Seat Garden Center, which provided tags at cost for each of the wreaths that reads: "Through the generosity and actions of hundreds of volunteers this wreath is donated and placed on the grave of a true American hero."

Several local organizations, including the Redstone-Huntsville Chapter of the Association of the U.S. Army and the Army Aviation Association of America, along with individuals made financial donations to Wreaths for Veterans.

Volunteers joining the Redstone Garden Club for Wreaths for Veterans represent the Patriot Guard Riders, Huntsville Beautification Board, DuMidi Woman's Club, Officer and Civilian Women's Club, Willowbrook Baptist Church, Redstone-Huntsville Chapter of AUSA, Gold Star Moms, Westminster Christian Academy, Madison Urgent Care, Hillwood Homemakers, Retired Officers' Wives Club and South Parkway Homemakers. The Daughters of the Confederacy placed wreaths on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and on more than 200 gravesites of Confederate soldiers at Maple Hill.

Volunteer Susan Griffith was among those helping place wreaths Nov. 18. She also estimated that she fluffed 50 of the wreaths at the museum.

"My father was a veteran, and my father-in-law. My husband is a veteran. This is something that I really wanted to do for the veterans," she said.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16