- The Washington Times - Monday, November 10, 2014

When Jaray Simms first participated in a Wreaths Across America event five years ago in Arlington National Cemetery, she knew the foundation would remain a part of her life.

In the most ambitious wreath-laying ceremony in the foundation’s history, Ms. Simms hopes to join about 25,000 fellow volunteers to lay a wreath at every grave in the cemetery — around 235,000 in total — on Dec. 13, as the Arlington site marks its 150th anniversary.

Leonard Collins, Ms. Simms’ father, served as a corporal in the Army during World War II and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery after he passed away last year at the age of 90.

“This all really came full circle. When I started volunteering for Wreaths Across America, I didn’t know my dad was going to be buried here, so to me this is like the ending of that circle,” said Ms. Simms, fighting back tears as she stood by her father’s grave.

The foundation has made the annual pilgrimage to Arlington since 1992, when the Worcester Wreath Co. in Columbia Falls, Maine, found itself with surplus wreaths from the Christmas season. Owner Morrill Worcester, who became interested in honoring veterans during a trip to the cemetery as a boy, decided it was time to return to Virginia.

The idea for the foundation blossomed, and its volunteers started laying wreaths at military cemeteries across the country. Mr. Worcester’s wife, Karen, has served as the foundation’s executive director since 2007.

In 2012, the foundation presented its 1 millionth wreath to the mother of an Army captain killed in Afghanistan.

Ruth Stonesifer, whose son died in Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001, spoke about the importance of the ceremonies at a Wreaths Across America event in 2012.

“Someday, when the words and his name are all worn off, there still will be someone who will come by and pay their respects in my son’s memory,” Ms. Stonesifer said.

The foundation says on its website that it tries to fill a gap, while recognizing that the country honors its military heroes each Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

“Our service men and women sacrifice their time and safety every single day of the year, to preserve our freedoms,” the website says. “At many homes, there is an empty seat for one who is serving, or one who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. And we think there is no better time to express our appreciation, than during the hustle and bustle of the holiday season.”

Each of the 10 bouquets in the wreath represents a symbol, such as the veterans’ faith and love for one another. The wreath as a whole stands for honor, respect and victory. The red bow at the top represents great sacrifice.

Even the evergreen, with its scent of balsam, represents traits of veterans.

“The Worcesters and their passion for Arlington Cemetery and veterans cemeteries around the country is just amazing. Their whole family shares in that passion,” Ms. Simms said.

The weeklong convoy from Maine to Virginia is billed as the “world’s longest veterans parade,” according to the organization.

About 100 people, including Gold Star Families, Patriot Guard Riders and veterans, will join the family to transport the wreaths. Along the way, they will be greeted by people lining the streets of small towns to pay tribute to fallen veterans. The convoy plans stops at schools and other memorial sites and services.

“The time around the holidays is when we think that people really feel the loss of somebody,” said Amber Caron, a spokeswoman for Wreaths Across America.

The organization is determined to meet its longtime goal this year, on the cemetery’s 150th anniversary, to honor every grave.

Last year, it took nearly 20,000 volunteers three hours to lay wreaths for some 143,000 gravesites. This year, the 23rd year Wreaths for America has been in operation, officials hope to recruit 20,000 to 25,000 volunteers to fulfill its mission.

Those interested in learning more can consult the group’s website at WreathsAcrossAmerica.org/events/blog/#sthash.yZifmrni.dpuf.

An Arlington National Cemetery representative said the Dec. 13 event is open to the public, but cars will be prohibited that day because of safety regulations.

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