Jose Rivera-Rodriguez is about to celebrate his first Christmas in the States. This year, it will be with his first fresh tree.
Amanda Rodriguez wasn't planning to have a Christmas tree at all this year. Her plans have changed.
They were among the members of the Maryland National Guard and their families who came to the Wilkens Avenue parking lot of the Hubbard Funeral Home to pick up one of the Christmas trees given away in the Trees for Troops program, on a warm Dec. 8.
Daniel Simons, managing partner of Hubbard, came up with the idea on Thanksgiving.
He and his wife, Heather, were looking online for inspiration when they came upon a program in which Christmas tree dealers sent trees to troops overseas.
"Wouldn't it be nice to do something locally, for the Maryland National Guard?" he said.
Since arriving at Hubbard about a year ago, he and his wife have donated backpacks to kids at local schools and filled 1,000 plastic eggs for Easter baskets distributed by local churches.
"It's our way of giving back," he said. "You know, you have to."
Simons contacted the Maryland National Guard. Families of deployed soldiers and soldiers who were just returning in units from Catonsville to Salisbury to Aberdeen were contacted. Then the invitation went out to all soldiers' families who might need a tree.
Simons called tree farms from Canada to North Carolina. He decided to buy trees from Elk River Evergreens, a farm in North Carolina.
When he discovered it was too late to have trees delivered. Simons booked a flight south to go pick up the trees himself.
He and Dean Tucker, who works at Hubbard, flew down Dec. 6. They rented two trucks and drove to Elk Park, North Carolina.
Nine and a half hours later, they were back at Hubbard with 275 fragrant Fraser firs, most between 5-feet and 6-feet tall.
"It was a fun time there and back," said Tucker, whose nephew, Sgt. Daniel Tucker, got the word out about the Trees for Troops to National Guardsmen in Aberdeen.
Rivera-Rodriguez, who recently transferred from a National Guard unit in his native Puerto Rico to one in Pikesville, got excited when he heard about the tree give-away.
"This is going to be my first real Christmas tree in the United States," he said.
He was the first one in line to pick one up Saturday.
"I need that tree," he said.
He is getting married this weekend to Zuleira Ruiz, a Baltimore County police officer assigned to the Towson Precinct. While he serves in the Guard, he's preparing to become a Baltimore City policeman, and plans to attend the police academy in January.
Amanda Rodriguez, a sergeant in the Guard unit at Ellicott City, came looking for a tree taller than herself, she said.