Local group takes over wreaths program, splitting from Wreaths Across America

Published 5:40 pm Tuesday, October 18, 2022

BY GREG GOLDFARB

CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Once again on the third Saturday in December, the Albert G. Horton Jr. Memorial Veterans Cemetery will teem with green memorial wreaths in honor of National Wreaths Across America Day.

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But this year, the Wreaths Across America (WAA) national organization will not be part of it, bowing to the local Horton Wreath Society (HWS) on that special day, as the two groups have parted ways over volunteer recruitment, competing ceremonies, wreath distribution and traffic concerns.

As a result of the conflict, state officials have given HWS sole responsibility for planning the popular, emotional event and placing of fresh wreaths.

“The Virginia Department of Veterans Services is very fortunate to have a wide base of support for annual wreath-laying events at each of its veteran cemeteries in Suffolk, Amelia and Dublin,” said Tina Parlett-Calhoun, director of communications, Virginia Department of Veterans Services. “The dedicated volunteers of the Horton Wreath Society in Suffolk, and the Southwest Virginia Veterans Cemetery (in Dublin) volunteers, are two great examples. The DVS is appreciative of past and continued support from Wreaths Across America.”

Currently, wreaths and funds cannot be donated to the Horton cemetery through the Wreaths Across America website. People interested in donating wreaths or funds to it may mail a donation to the Horton Wreath Society, P.O. Box 6246, Virginia Beach, Virginia, 23456, or visit www.hortonwreathsociety.org.

The public ceremony is set for 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 17. For anyone wishing to volunteer that day, parking will only be available at King’s Fork High School and junior high.

Buses will shuttle volunteers to and from the high school’s parking lot and the Albert G. Horton, Jr. Veterans Cemetery, starting at 7 a.m. Transportation for disabled citizens will also be provided for free.

Before the public arrives on Thursday, registered “Red Flag” families may start laying wreaths a day early from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Friday, Dec. 16. To register, visit www.hortonwreathsociety.org

Ensuring that there’s enough manpower to work the event each year, including handling vehicular and pedestrian traffic, was one of the primary reasons why the two groups stayed together, plus WAA publicized the cemetery online and took orders and payments for wreaths that were bought specifically to be delivered to the Horton cemetery. 

This year, as HWS goes it alone, no problems are expected as the group purchases and places some 13,000 wreaths, at a cost of more than $100,000.

“We, the Horton Wreath Society, have been conducting this ceremony since 2008 and adorning each burial site with a wreath,” said society president, Michael Yarbrough. “We have never not had enough wreaths to place on each burial site.”

Everything seemed to be going along smoothly between the groups until the pandemic hit and 2021wreath day organizers were forced to cut back on the number of volunteers that could participate.

“We had a ‘sign-up’ on our webpage to control the limited capacity of 250 volunteers,” said Yarbrough. “Without our knowledge, Wreaths Across America also had a sign-up on their webpage, without clearing it through the Virginia Department of Veterans Services; in turn, hundreds of volunteers showed up and we had backed up lines getting into the cemetery for hours; needless to say this was totally unsatisfactory.”

Yarbrough said that it was a conflict of interest and confusing for WAA’s website to recruit volunteers and sell wreaths contrary to the Virginia Department of Veterans Services’ latest organizational direction to HWS to do it, which led to an overflow of vehicles waiting in line for long periods of time, causing “a very unsafe traffic atmosphere at that time.”

He expressed his displeasure to WAA officials about his observations and feelings and asked them to stop promoting the Horton cemetery on their website and taking wreath orders. WAA, in turn, informed Yarbrough that it was against its policy to participate in, or conduct, future combined wreath-laying ceremonies. Moving forward, he understands that WAA and the cemetery did not want to conduct two separate ceremonies.

“It would be an inconvenience,” he said. “All the cemetery staff would have to work two separate weekends to accommodate that; and the burial sites would be adorned sporadically instead all in one day.”

Julie Bright, director of locations and groups, Wreaths Across America, said that her group, like HWS, is a charitable organization and that any wreath sponsorships made to her organization must be used for the program’s active cemetery locations. 

The Horton cemetery had previously participated in the program as a registered location for many years, she said, and all wreath sponsorships made for it through the Wreaths Across America program came through the national organization and were allocated to it. 

“Unfortunately, the cemetery has decided they no longer want to participate in the program after Wreaths Across America removed the volunteer-in-charge for not following our stated, and agreed upon policies,” said Bright. “Wreaths Across America offered to replace the volunteer and continue to work with Albert G. Horton Jr. Cemetery as a participating location, however, this request was denied by the cemetery. As a result, wreaths sponsored for the former location, through Wreaths Across America, must be re-allocated to participating Wreaths Across America registered locations — the Virginia Veterans Cemetery in Amelia is (now) the only participating Virginia State Veterans Cemetery location with Wreaths Across America.”

Bright said HWS is welcome to participate in the future as a sponsorship group, but, because it is no longer a program participant, she said, “there will be no Wreaths Across America-sponsored wreaths placed” at the Horton cemetery.

“The Virginia Veterans Cemetery earned enough sponsorships to place a wreath on all 5,000 veterans’ graves last year and currently are on track to do so again this year,” she said. “Wreaths Across America is the only organization that places wreaths at the Virginia Veterans Cemetery, in Amelia, so there will only be one ceremony.

“(Since) Albert G. Horton Jr. Cemetery is not registered to participate in the National Wreaths Across America Day event,” she continued, “any wreath placements planned by the cemetery will be done so on their own this year; however, WAA is hopeful we will be able to work with the cemetery again.”

Bright said they are able to register as a participating location at any time. “We are still open to working with both the cemetery and Horton Wreath Society and would be happy to, if they choose to be part of the program,” she said.

Virginia state veterans cemeteries Director Michael H. Henshaw with the Virginia Department of Veterans Services has been monitoring the situation and finally concluded that the society should be in charge of the overall event.

“While both organizations’ efforts ensured that enough wreaths were available to cover the entire cemetery, having two separate groups doing fundraising, coordinating logistics and conducting ceremonies has led to some confusion, duplication of efforts and messaging issues,” Henshaw said. “So, beginning immediately, HWS will assume all responsibilities for the purchase of the wreaths, laying of the wreaths, conducting an appropriate ceremony to take place just prior to the wreath-laying event and coordinating for the removal of the wreaths.” 

As Yarbrough looks ahead to wreath-laying day, he knows he’ll be up well before daybreak, as volunteer efforts begin that morning at 7 a.m.

“Before COVID, we had as many as 2,000 volunteers,” he said. “This is not the only day we have volunteers working. We receive the wreaths on the 14th at the Army National Guard Armory, across from Sentara Obici Hospital. I have 50 to 100 volunteers unloading the two semi-trucks and unboxing them in a large garage provided by the National Guard armory. We put them in volunteer trucks from FedEx and Beach Marine, so we can strategically place them around the cemetery prior to Friday, when we open up the cemetery for family members only, to avoid the crowd makes it more personal to them. We have a sign-up on our webpage for that.”

The event goes on rain or shine, and they will continue in the years ahead with or without WAA’s involvement, said Yarbrough, adding that they won’t rule out someday trying to work together again. But in the meantime, he doesn’t miss them.

“Not at all,” he said. “They still hide behind their so-called ‘policy’ and have designated 1,000 donated wreaths, from Mission BBQ earmarked for us, to go to another veterans cemetery; and all the other wreaths, purchased separately and designated for the Albert G. Horton cemetery, supposedly were refunded. I can’t prove that either way.

“They were just an avenue to receive a portion of the wreaths required each year to adorn each burial site,” Yarbrough said. “We always did all the work because they do not have the volunteer volume in order to pull this large event off. Their webpage purchases usually equated to 10 percent or under; especially with the amount of burials now that grow each year.”

Yarbrough said that for the two groups to again work together, certain agreements would have to be reached.

“Only if WAA would come to terms by not inconveniencing the cemetery by having two separate programs and we were added back to their website as a second avenue to receive donations and wreaths,” said Yarbrough.

The society plans to continue raising funds and purchasing wreaths for years to come, as the number of veterans who pass away keeps rising.

“The quantity (we need) goes up approximately $10,000 a year,” said Yarbrough, a Chesapeake resident. “We are getting ready to stand up PayPal on our website, but for now, donations are received via ‘snail-mail’ at our post office box.”  

Wreaths Across America works to “Remember, Honor and Teach” by coordinating wreath-laying ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery, as well as, at more than 2,500 additional locations in all 50 U.S. states, at sea and abroad. 

Horton Wreath Society is a group of local and interested friends who join together to raise money each year to purchase a live wreath for each gravesite at the Albert G. Horton Jr., Memorial Veterans Cemetery, which opened in 2004 and is located at 5310 Milners Road in eastern Suffolk.