Abraham Lincoln National
Everyone Plays a Part: Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery Volunteer Spotlight
The theme for national Wreaths Across America Day this year is Everyone Plays a Part, and when it comes to volunteers in Illinois, that slogan is on full display at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Illinois.
Named after our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln National is a relatively new cemetery started in 1999, and when completed it will be the final resting place for as many as 400,000 veterans and their families.
Wreaths Across America SWAT volunteer Debbie Bennett is the Location Coordinator for Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery and a Group Fundraising Leader for Operation Care Package.
“For me, I like to get everybody involved in the community,” Debbie explains of her ceremonies on Wreath Day. “A few years back we had Boy Scouts make about 150 flag poles, and we have a volunteer, who every year picks up those flag poles and hands them out to active duty military, veterans, firefighters, cadets, anyone who will stand in formation holding these flags which looks just beautiful. We have a group of high school kids who help fluff up the wreaths and breakdown the boxes. Parents from the local Catholic School come out and serve as our “wreath guards” who hand out the wreaths. Also, for those who can’t physically make it to the cemetery that day because they’re elderly, we host a free luncheon at the local VFW. Volunteers serve anywhere from 300 to 600 people every year.”
Debbie has been a Wreaths Across America volunteer for ten years and is an inaugural member of the SWAT team. SWAT stands for Solutions-oriented Wreaths Advisory Team and is a core group of dedicated volunteers who serve as mentors for other volunteers across the country. Each year, Wreaths Across America expands its annual volunteer training to include more SWAT members.
“Even though you know it’s a small group that runs Wreaths Across America, you don’t get the full idea of what’s going on behind the scenes until you see it. I wish everyone could at least get a walkthrough of operations and see how it’s done. It was a real eye-opener for me last year. After this year’s SWAT training, I just want to go back and do what I can to help grow it until every cemetery is full of veterans’ wreaths.”
As the Location Coordinator for Abraham Lincoln National, Debbie faces a logistical challenge because tractor-trailer rigs are not permitted to go inside the cemetery itself to drop off wreaths. That’s when everything gets creative, and everyone plays a part. Enter the reinforcements, in the form of farmer David Kestel, and other members of the local Farm Bureau in Will County, Illinois.
“Last year, we had 17 farmers who cleaned out their live-stock trailers and showed up to help,” David explains. “When the tractor trailers arrived at the Farm Bureau we unloaded the wreath boxes and had it figured out who would transport boxes to each section of the cemetery. We had five or six squad cars provide us with a police escort to the cemetery. It was a very special feeling for all involved.“
David admits there are a lot of logistics to be worked out getting the local farmers coordinated with the arriving tractor trailers filled with veterans’ wreaths, and it’s time-consuming during the already-busy month of December. He’s quick to make another admission too.
“I just love it,” David sighed with a chuckle. “It’s so rewarding to participate. I can’t wait for December this year, and I want to do more to promote it to cover our cemetery. Unfortunately, it’s growing rapidly with about 17 burials a day.”
Wreaths Across America values the time, energy and commitment Debbie, David and all of the volunteers and citizens give to remember, honor and teach by covering veterans’ headstones with a fresh balsam fir veteran’s wreath every December.
You can hear more about Debbie and David’s involvement on #WreathsRadio as we celebrate volunteerism in support of our active duty military, their families, and our veterans.