Hundreds of volunteers will place some 600 wreaths on the graves of veterans in Bel Air Memorial Gardens on Saturday, as Harford County participates in the Wreaths Across America program for the 11th year.
"This is going to be a bigger deal for us than it has been in the past," Dick Gebhard, coordinator of the program in Harford County and past commander of American Legion Bel Air Post 39, said. "I've had people from all over the region call and say they are coming. It's the most wreaths we've ever had."
The Wreaths Across America program honors veterans at more than 1,000 locations, such as cemeteries and monuments, across the United States and beyond, according to the nonprofit program's website www.wreathsacrossamerica.org, which also tells the story of how, in 1992, Morrill Worcester began the program by placing a surplus of wreaths from his Maine wreath-making company on the graves at Arlington National Cemetery, where he had visited as a 12-year-old and had never forgotten the experience.
Last year, volunteers placed more than 700,000 memorial wreaths, including 226,525 covering Arlington, according to the organization. The placing of the wreaths nationwide takes place on either the first or second Saturday in December. Some Harford County Scouts are expected to participate in Saturday's wreath laying at Arlington.
In Bel Air, there will be a brief ceremony at Town Hall beginning at noon, followed by the placing of the wreaths at the cemetery.
Gebhard, who will preside, said he plans to talk about the Wreaths Across America goal to remember those who served and have passed on; to honor living veterans and those serving, and to teach younger citizens "about freedom and how we wouldn't have it if not for the sacrifices of others."
He said the ceremony will include seven wreaths, five representing each branch of the military, one to remember POWs and MIAs and one to honor the Merchant Marine.
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When a wreath is placed, the person should say the name of the veteran buried there out loud, Gebhard said, and thank them for their service.
"We are not here to 'decorate graves.' We're here to remember not their deaths, but their lives," Karen Worcester, executive director of Wreaths Across America, said in a previous television interview.
Gebhard said there are about 1,300 veterans buried at Bel Air Memorial Gardens. That number is based upon the number of flags members of local Cub Scout troops report placing on the graves at the cemetery on the weekend before Veterans Day.
"When we started 11 years ago, we asked the cemetery people how many they had, but they didn't ask [if a person was a veteran], so they told us to use 500, but it's a lot more and since the Cub Scouts started doing the flags, it's a more accurate count."
Gebhard said some wreaths have already been delivered for Saturday's event, with more coming. Donors pay $15 per wreath, and if they buy two, a third is free.
Wreaths Across America says on its website that 86 cents of every dollar donated goes to wreath sponsorships, shipping costs not covered by its trucking partners and fundraising group paybacks. Despite its continued growth, the nonprofit operates with just eight full-time employees.
Nationally, volunteers participating in Wreaths Across America have grown to more than 200,000, with a number of corporate sponsors joining, too.