A chilly wind whipped around bundled-up volunteers at the Ohio Department of Agriculture headquarters in Reynoldsburg on Nov. 13, but the cold couldn't stop the festive atmosphere of the Ohio Christmas Tree Association's Operation Evergreen.
More than 100 white pine and fir trees, each 6 feet tall and donated by tree farms throughout Ohio, were inspected by ODA officials, then packed into individual boxes for shipment to U.S. military bases in Kuwait.
"I'm from the Vietnam War era," said Amy Galehouse, coordinator of Operation Evergreen and owner of Galehouse Tree Farms in Doylestown. "People I went to school with served in Vietnam and were far from home during the holidays.
"It's important to remember troops overseas. I lived overseas myself for a while. Veterans I know said that even if a box is full of cookie crumbs when it arrives, it comes from home, and that makes it precious."
Galehouse has been involved in Operation Evergreen since she and other members of the Ohio Christmas Tree Association began the program in 1995.
"We have a lot of volunteers helping us each year; some come from schools and Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops, and some are veterans or from churches and tree farms," she said.
Students from Anna Middle School near Dayton, wearing colorful scarves and hats, packed holiday cheer into each box by adding garlands, ornaments and cards.
"I'm happy to help soldiers and veterans," eighth-grader Leah Meyer said. "We wouldn't be here without them. We made a lot of ornaments to go on the trees."
Sporting a fuzzy pink cap, teacher Brenda Wuebker said she brought Leah and 19 other seventh- and eighth-graders enrolled in her class on family, career and community leaders of America to help with Operation Evergreen.
"I think helping with this effort lets the students understand the full meaning of giving back to the military at Christmastime," she said. "Several of my high school students also made ornaments."
Although the trees were donated and Akers Packaging Service Group in Middletown donated 150 boxes, shipping costs amounted to a whopping $11,700, or $117 per tree, this year.
"We shipped 300 trees in 2012, but shipping costs increased, so we had to cut down the number of trees," Galehouse said. "A lot of the tree farms donate money as well as trees, but we have to collect money all year for shipping."
Donations to help with shipping costs can be made online through the Ohio Christmas Tree Association website at ohiochristmastree.org/operation-evergreen.
"We have to estimate shipping costs because we can't get a good quote until 30 days in advance of our shipping date," Galehouse said.
She said timing the shipments near Veterans Day allows the trees to arrive in Kuwait not long after Thanksgiving and well before Christmas.
Each tree is carefully inspected before being boxed, said Dan Kenny, assistant chief of the ODA Division of Plant Health.
"Our role is to look for any sign of insects or diseases," he said. "Trees that pass inspection are packed with a certificate that they are free of disease."
He said the ODA at 8995 E. Main St. in Reynoldsburg is a good central location for Operation Evergreen.
"We are happy to play a role in giving back each year to troops serving overseas," he said.