ROYAL CITY — On a cold Thursday morning, as other high schoolers were in classes and preparing for a holiday break that couldn’t come fast enough, 10 members of the Royal High School football team were laying evergreen wreaths on the graves of many of the town’s deceased veterans.
It was a quiet affair, as teammates hauled cardboard boxes full of boughs from gravestone to gravestone at the town’s tiny cemetery, making sure the red ribbons on top were straight and unbunched.
In some sections, last names repeat in small clusters. Located only a block down from the high school, it’s a small graveyard in a small town where everyone knows everyone, and few rest there anonymously.
While his team decorated the final resting places of the region’s men and women in uniform, football coach Wiley Allred visited his father’s grave. For many of the kids who had lived there their entire lives, it was not their first time at the cemetery, having had visited their own family members interned there at one point or another.
But this day was meant to celebrate a particular class of Royal City natives, those who had served in the armed forces. It was just one piece of a nationwide effort through non-profit group Wreaths Across America, which holds an annual ceremony of laying wreaths on the graves of veterans across the U.S. and elsewhere around the globe. Close to 1,700 locations participated in this year’s event, thanks to the efforts of more than a million volunteers, according to a press release.
Wreaths Across America began as an expansion of the annual wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery begun by Maine businessman Morrill Worcester, who owns the tree farm that now provides the organization with thousands of wreaths ever year. The trees themselves are sponsored by the families of deceased veterans.
While most wreath-laying ceremonies were conducted the weekend of the 15th, the shipment of wreaths to Royal City resident and event organizer Kirk Wilson came late. It was Royal City’s first year taking part in the ceremony, after all, and there were still kinks to work out of the process. But once they arrived, it was short work to call Allred and round up a crew of willing young men to volunteer to lay the wreaths.
Micah Albert, who plays center on the team, said that they had only been asked to take part in the wreath-laying ceremony a few days prior, but that they all jumped at the opportunity to give back.
“I don’t think that you can ever show enough respect to veterans, so it’s nice to be able to just give back a little bit,” Albert said.
Allred had talked with Wilson over the last year about the possibility of bringing his team to take part in the event, and he was proud to see how willing the young men were to take some time away from school to give back to veterans, many of whom had passed away before the high schoolers were born.
“It’s a good experience for them, and they all wanted to come,” Allred said. “It’s refreshing.”
Although this was Wilson’s and Royal City’s first foray into the Wreaths Across America event, it likely won’t be the last. Wilson said that he learned about the event last year and hadn’t been certain how easily organizing the event would be, but the community promptly turned out for its veterans and donated enough to fund 75 wreaths.
As the football team walked back to the high school just in time for lunch, and as he carried the last of the wreaths to the last of the graves, Wilson said that he was grateful both for the veterans who paid the served and sacrificed for their country, and also to the community for making the first annual Royal City Wreaths Across America possible.
“I take no credit at all,” Wilson said. “It’s all in the community.”