Cheer for Troops

The Ohio Christmas Tree Association provides holiday spirit to those serving abroad.

Valerie Graham, executive director of the Ohio Christmas Tree Association (OCTA), counts among her managerial responsibilities assisting tree farmers across the state with Operation Evergreen, an annual service project that gives fresh-cut Christmas trees and decorations to overseas military units. The project helps to bring a bit of home to soldiers who can’t be with their families at the holidays, and Graham says it’s one of the most rewarding aspects of her position.

An independent administrator for several agricultural organizations, Graham is a member of Newark-based The Energy Cooperative who lives with her husband and their five daughters on a 200-acre livestock farm near Frazeysburg. She works out of a home office and handles everything from OCTA’s paperwork and communications to processing Operation Evergreen donations. Every November, Graham also participates in Operation Evergreen’s packing day, when all the Christmas trees grown and donated by OCTA members are transported to the Ohio Department of Agriculture in Reynoldsburg. After the evergreens pass inspection, a legion of volunteers — including adults on their lunch hours, as well as youth and school groups — readies the trees and their decorations for shipment. “We get busloads of kids who come to put ornaments in bags,” says Graham. “They wear Christmas hats and have lots of fun doing it.”

Operation Evergreen was launched in 1995 at the suggestion of former OCTA Executive Director Rhea Dawn Smith. Its mission is bringing Christmas cheer to troops stationed far from home. “Her husband was a Marine, and she knew that OCTA could provide a network for military donations,” says Amy Galehouse of Doylestown’s Galehouse Tree Farms, the project’s veteran coordinator.

That first year, Operation Evergreen sent 30 trees to U.S. forces in Bosnia, and in 2011, more than 300 went to personnel in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. This year, OCTA plans to supply about 100 Christmas trees and dispatch them to the Middle East by air freight on November 14. “If they’re shipped out on that date,” says Galehouse, “we know they’ll be in Kuwait by Thanksgiving and get distributed to different bases in time for Christmas.”

Because they’re shipped in boxes measuring 12 inches by 12 inches by 84 inches, the Christmas trees must be between 51/2 and 6 feet tall, and the preferred varieties are white pine and fir, which hold their needles well and can be easily compressed to fit inside the boxes. A true Christmas present, each box comes complete with an Ohio-grown tree, 35 feet of garland, and 48 ornaments. Also tucked into the boxes on packing day are handcrafted holiday banners and “Merry Christmas” messages written and collected at local football games and other events. “Every year, OCTA exhibits a fully decorated Christmas tree at the Ohio State Fair,” says Graham. “We encourage people to stop by and sign letters for the troops.”

Although OCTA members donate the trees, all the decorations — purchased or handmade — are given to Operation Evergreen by individuals, Scouting and 4-H members, civic societies, churches, and nursing homes. “Making red-and-green paper chain garlands is very popular with school and youth groups,” says Graham. “It’s those homemade ornaments that really touch the heart.” While commercial carriers such as UPS and FedEx offer Operation Evergreen discounted rates, this year’s shipping costs will tally about $15,000, and OCTA relies on contributions to help with that expense. Says Graham, “We appreciate everybody who makes a donation, whether it’s $5 or the $150 needed to ship each Christmas tree.”