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.
She said she was excited to get the email about the free trees.
It was a great help, she said.
Trying to economize, she said she wasn't going to get a fresh tree and, besides, she'd be away from her home and family in Florida.
"That'll bring me a little Christmas cheer," she said, as members of the National Guard Teen Council helped her stuff her tree inside her Hyundai compact.
Theresa (Beth) Stoddard, lead child and youth program coordinator at the Fifth Regiment Armory, called on members of the Teen Council — the children of National Guard members — to help families secure the trees to their vehicles.
The four who came were: Ena Keys, of Columbia, Alaina Funk, of Parkton, Michael Milchling, of Essex, and Anthony Epps, of Reisterstown.
The teens also helped load a dozen trees into a Humvee bound for the Guard unit in Salisbury and more into an Army truck headed to Aberdeen Proving Grounds.
Daniel Tucker came down from Harford County to pick up 100 trees for soldiers on duty and soldiers who were unable to come themselves due to disability, illness or other problems.
"This is a great thing he (Simons) is doing," he said.
Maryland National Guardsmen are currently serving in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo, he said, adding that he's about to be deployed after Christmas himself, his seventh deployment.
Cidney Thomas, who is assigned to the 224th Medical Unit in Olney, recently returned from New Jersey, where her unit had been sent to help victims of Hurricane Sandy. She previously served in Iraq.
Her son, Staff Sgt. Jason Thomas, just returned from his sixth deployment in Afghanistan.
"He's like me," she said of her son. "We love what we do."
She said she was grateful for the tree give-away.
"You know what?" she said. "Someone is helping me. That's great and I am here. I think this is so wonderful."