The mission of the Christmas Spirit Foundation is to advance the Christmas Spirit for kids, families & the environment through programs & activities.
Christmas Spirit Foundation Recognizes Five SPIRIT AWARD Recipients for 2023
By: Elizabeth LeBrun
As the Trees for Troops (T4T) program continues to grow, the Christmas SPIRIT Foundation (CSF) Board of Trustees recognizes that success of the program depends on many people being involved. They support the program in various ways that include sourcing trees to donate, coordinating volunteer efforts to load/unload trees, raising funds to support the program, and creating awareness.
In 2018, the Trustees formalized their recognition of individuals, companies, and organizations for superlative support of the T4T program. This honor is represented by the Christmas SPIRIT Award.
Each year, the Trustees review nominations and present selected recipients with the award, thanking them for their creative and extraordinary support. CSF recognized five individuals/organizations in 2023 for their contribution to the T4T program. Here are their stories:
2023 Christmas Spirit Award Recipients
Dick Darling recalls that the death of a local soldier was the initiative for him, as owner of Darling’s Tree Farm in Clifton Springs, New York, to begin 17 years of unparalleled CSF and T4T leadership as Coordinator for the entire state of New York. While the now 81-year-old Darling had decided to take a well-deserved breather and retire as Chair of the Board of Trustees this year, he still plans to contribute his experience and energy in a Trustee role. “The first year, we shipped about 300 trees across the country, then we bumped it up to about 50 growers, and the numbers have been going up each year,” says Darling. “I dare say that we’re now shipping trees from about 100 tree farmers in New York, and it’s fairly standard that 90 percent of them will do it next year too! It was quite a bear at first, but I got to know the farmers and see them at meetings throughout the year.”
While he has no formal military background, Darling has immersed himself and his family in the pick-up, drop-off, and logistical coordination of New York’s program. “We work year-round, which I think is a big reason for the program’s success! New York tree farmers are motivated the whole year – not just at Christmas time.” says Darling. “We should complement a lot of people involved in making this happen. FedEx, for example, allows us to ship all of our trees in a week’s time. I have a lot of volunteers, like our local American Legion whose members collect or donate money, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and school kids who make cards to thank the troops. Rick (Dungey – Executive Director of the CSF) and my family have been very supportive over the years. The main thrust is the tree farmers, though, with a lot of them helping us from the start.”
Darling recounts various setbacks that they’ve managed to overcome, including three tractor trailers loaded with trees becoming stranded in Quebec due to weather, and three feet of snow in Fort Drum that prohibited road passage. “I remember a FedEx lady who came to do a story on the T4T delivery at Ft. Drum with snow and about 10 degrees temperature,” said Darling. “She wasn’t used to that type of weather and about froze! We usually send about 600-650 a year up there, and I’d say that 60-70 percent of the soldiers there have never had a Christmas tree before. I started to bring some twine up every year to teach them how to tie trees onto cars…and called it basic training.”
Some favorite stories include that of a soldier stationed in Kuwait who received one of the first tree shipments. “It made such a difference to him, and after that, he wanted to know what he could do to help,” remembers Darling. “He’s helped ever since, and is now retired from the service, but will help with a press release or anything we need him to!”
“Back when we were boxing and shipping ourselves, I got a call from a guy with a collection of 150 baseball caps to donate, which we sent to two aircraft carriers,” said Darling. “One girl scout leader in Rochester wanted to donate boxes of cookies but didn’t know how to get them to us. We drove there and loaded two station wagons full of 1,200 boxes that we then sent with the trees!”
Darling wants people to know that CSF and T4T participation gives you a good feeling in helping soldiers during a tough time of the year for them. “For example, Fort Drum gave out the 200,000th tree one year, and the chaplains helped me find a family to present it to. The husband was deployed the following year, and his wife and kids appreciated the tree so much that they came out the next year as well. I hear from everyone that gets a tree, how much they just love the smell of it. When you’re standing there and loading the trees to send – it’s just heartwarming!”
Jennifer Greene hit the ground running when she became Executive Director of the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association (NCCTA) in November of 2009, given that state-wide tree pickups were scheduled to happen just a few weeks from that time. However, Greene proved her skills by making plans and phone calls to growers to arrange for donations and pick up locations, while maximizing the program’s exposure to constituents and followers of the North Carolina growers’ association.
“It's a lot of work, but I don't do it alone,” says Greene. “I have a wonderful assistant who helps me make phone calls, plan the details, and coordinate volunteers. She assists with all aspects of making it happen. We always have our pickups the week after Thanksgiving, and being that North Carolina is the second largest producer in the nation for Christmas trees, it's a very busy time. It is important to coordinate dates that also work for the growers, because without their contributions - this program would not exist.”
Greene credits her 13 years of success as Executive Director to assistance from the community, including that of pickup location hosts, the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC)’s from Ashe County and Avery County High Schools, and the Allegheny High School agriculture students. “The students come to tag, and load, and do whatever we need them to,” says Greene. “And they come whether it's sunny and warm, raining, windy, or there's snow coming down and it's freezing cold. Honestly, once people find out about the program details and the impact that it has, and how long it's been going on, people feel inspired to help and contribute.”
Local community groups such as restaurants, businesses, and private organizations have generously provided snacks, labor, and even homemade baked goods over the years. “School kids in the communities of Western North Carolina participate by drawing pictures and writing messages on the tree tags,” says Greene. “By reading their messages and seeing the images they draw, you are able to experience things from their perspective on Christmas. Trees for Troops, and the Christmas tree industry is one of my favorite things about doing this each year. The NCCTA has a wonderful community of supporters that help make the program possible each and every year.” These vital connections also include public figures and dignitaries who come to help with loading events, providing support for the program, and even getting their hands dirty by tagging and loading trees.
In 2022, Greene volunteered at the last-minute request of CSF, to attend and later publicize the T4T event at Fort Bragg, while representing CSF and all of the grower donors. “It was such a heart-warming experience for me to be able to see firsthand the recipients of the trees. My goal is that the next time I go to a base, I go after school hours, because I would love to be able to see the reactions of the children and the families as they receive and choose their trees,” says Greene. She was also able to supplement a shortfall in tree numbers at the base with a generous contribution of fresh wreaths from growers.
Greene experienced the true reach of the CSF while on a recent kayak tour in Key West, Florida, where a participant inquired about her husband’s NCCTA shirt. “Turns out that he is a Battalion Sergeant Major and has been a recipient of a T4T tree for the past four years,” says Greene. “He thanked me for my work with the program and expressed his gratitude for receiving a tree each year. It was really cool to randomly meet someone who has received a North Carolina Fraser Fir Christmas tree through the T4T program!”
Greene believes that the reason for CSF’s continued impactful growth is the generosity of the Christmas tree growers that make it happen. “I believe it's an inspiring example of how we can come together as an industry to express our appreciation to those who serve and have served,” says Greene.
Betsy Wahmhoff Perales of Wahmhoff Farms Nursery in Gobles, Michigan, says that her family eagerly accepted the opportunity to take part in T4T because they simply believed in the cause. “My brothers, Dan and Ken Wahmhoff, owners of our third-generation family Christmas tree farm, were contacted in 2006, the second year of the program, by Marsha Gray of the Michigan Christmas Tree Association, and immediately jumped on board to be part of the program to supply fresh Christmas trees to military families” says Perales. “We thought it was very cool, and we’ve been involved ever since!”
Perales explains that their family has an extended military history, with her mother and father actually meeting in Japan while both stationed there…he in the Army and she as a civilian with the Armed Forces. “My son was in the Marine Corps. We had a nephew in the Army, a nephew in the Navy, a niece in the Air Force, and other relatives serving our country in the military as well,” says Perales. “We are so grateful.”
Wahmhoff Farms Nursery is known as one of the most reliable tree pick-up spots in the nation, as well as one of the first to turn everything in annually, while also participating in all three segments of the T4T process: gathering area trees, donating personal trees, and dropping finished trees off – a pretty amazing feat. “It makes a big difference that coordinating everything is not the responsibility of just one person here at our farm,” explains Perales. “Ken reserves the trees that we need for T4T from his wholesale inventory to cover both farm and consumer donations, and Dan runs the crews to make sure the trees are harvested and stockpiled in our loading area and that employees are available to help with the loading. I handle the paperwork side of it, making sure we get the forms in on time, and reaching out to my T4T volunteer and media lists to let them know details. I process the consumer tree donations placed on our website, made through our office, or purchased on one of our retail lots, and tally up the count so they have those trees available to tag and load.” Perales also handles smaller but appreciated tasks such as picking up donated cider and donut treats for volunteers from their local store which always has them ready early.
Perales always appreciates having people on hand who show their love of country and military by assisting with every piece of the process. “I put the information out via Facebook, email and advertising that T4T is happening, and they all take it from there. Every year, we have familiar faces and also add new volunteers to our group. Even the local elementary school participates annually by creating handwritten cards to be attached to the trees. Some regular volunteers even email to let me know if they can’t make it “this year”, but plan to return. They want to make sure we know their hearts are here and they support what Trees for Troops is doing for our military.” Perales undersells the scope of coordinating the volunteers, considering there are typically around 100 of them. It’s simply amazing.
Sue Greenlaw, Bethlehem Elementary School (BES) Principal, is a prime example of how it takes dedicated people from all professions to contribute to the success of T4T. As a fifth-grade teacher in 2005, at the beginning of T4T, Sue wanted to help her students understand the power of volunteerism.
“Nigel Manley (CSF Board Member) and I have been friends since the early 1980s, and when he and I spoke, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to get my students involved in something meaningful,” explains Greenlaw. “We learned of other ways we could support T4T that would also give the students some authentic opportunities to connect with their community. It went from loading trees, to filling out the tags attached to the trees, to calling individuals and businesses seeking donations to purchase trees, to writing thank you notes to the donors. The students always took their roles very seriously and understood that all they did contributed to the bigger picture.”
Greenlaw understands the importance of the military, as her husband’s family is deeply entrenched, with both a World War II veteran mother-in-law and father-in-law, and two brothers-in-law in Korea and Vietnam. “My brother-in-law, Dan Greenlaw, is very involved in the VFW. My dad served in Korea, but that was not a huge part of my life like it has been for my husband,” said Greenlaw.
When asked if the orchestration of this major volunteer effort had gotten easier over the years, Greenlaw says that it was never really hard. “We truly see this as a life-changing opportunity for our students, and one of the events they remember fondly from their elementary years. Sam, a fifth grader when the program started, entered the military, and came back as an adult to help us load trees. It’s become a tradition that matters!”
She feels that it’s so important for people to get involved, and loves that on tree-loading days, growers, service people, the superintendent, and many members of the BES staff all work side-by-side. “When you work hard with a group, you feel the power of the task, and that it is very important work,” says Greenlaw.
Trees for Troops is now an annual mission at her school, and Greenlaw still works very closely with 5th grade staff, including Christine Young-Rineer who has partnered with her over the years and recently took over many of the responsibilities due to her daily student connections.
Greenlaw feels very honored to receive the award. “It was completely unexpected because I feel that I take away so much from the program each year. It has been a joy to work with Nigel over the years, and that connection has benefited the BES students in so many ways. We’ve received some very special thank you notes from recipients…again bringing it full circle. Loading trees and the hard work it requires has allowed kids who sometimes struggle at school to shine - which is incredibly valuable.”
Devin Potter, Deputy Director of Marketing with Marine Corps Community Services (MCCS), along with her team, has been the driving force behind the resounding success of the Trees for Troops (T4T) event at Camp Pendleton in California for an impressive 12 years. Additionally, MCCS has admirably coordinated this beloved event at Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow for 5 years.
As one of the original five bases selected to receive trees in 2005, Camp Pendleton stands as a testament to the unwavering commitment of MCCS. With its sprawling expanse, the base typically receives an astonishing 800-1200 trees, with an additional 75-150 trees designated for the Barstow location. Recognizing the logistical challenges posed by Camp Pendleton's size, MCCS ensures that the trees are efficiently transported to a secondary distribution point, where they are made available to base personnel. This means that MCCS effectively coordinates three T4T events each year, providing Marines and their families with a heartwarming experience.
MCCS, as an organization, boasts a remarkable team that works tirelessly to execute the T4T distribution. They diligently recruit over 100 volunteers from the active-duty personnel, who wholeheartedly dedicate themselves to handling the trees. The event, aptly named "Winter Fest Express," has become an integral part of the Marines' and their families' lives stationed at Camp Pendleton, thanks to the exceptional efforts of MCCS. The program's success is further amplified by the involvement of multiple local sponsors, with MCCS ensuring that the T4T program receives unparalleled visibility on both the main base Facebook page and the MCCS Facebook page.
The year 2022 brought an exciting twist, with GEICO, a prominent new sponsor for T4T, expressing a desire to participate in several on-base events and offer additional giveaways, including at Camp Pendleton. MCCS, led by Devin and her dedicated team, seamlessly integrated GEICO into the program. Despite the additional workload, MCCS took the initiative to conduct virtual meetings with CSF staff and the GEICO coordinator to secure the necessary clearances for on-base participation. This display of dedication and unwavering support underscored MCCS's commitment to the program's success. Devin emphasized, “I extend my heartfelt appreciation to T4T and the Christmas Spirit Foundation for their unwavering support in spreading joy to our beloved Camp Pendleton Marines, Sailors, and their families."
The individuals at MCCS responsible for coordinating the actual events where the trees are distributed on bases deserve immense recognition. Devin, together with her extraordinary team, exemplifies the spirit of excellence that MCCS embodies. Their unwavering dedication and meticulous planning ensure that the T4T event at Camp Pendleton remains an extraordinary and unforgettable experience for the Marines and their families, year after year.
Spirit Award Recipient History
2022- Karen Williams, Anthony and Tyler Cerbo, Randy and Denise Wood, Greg Smith, Steve Van Camp
2021- Dewey Romagnoli, Romagnoli’s Oneida Valley Acres, Lehighton Area School District, Warren Miller, Miller Plumbing and Heating, Pam Helmsing
2020- Tom and Kerry Dull, Farmside Acres, Noble Mountain Tree Farm, Bill Wilczek & Barbie Beck-Wilczek, Mahoney's Garden Centers, Auto Savers Group
2019- Harry and Juanita Peckham, Mark Watts
2018- Steve Drake