GLOCESTER – Ponaganset’s Dean of Students Michael Calenda and special educator Gary Martinelli spent six hours last Saturday planting 2,000 small flags and 148 tall pole flags along Snake Hill and Anan Wade Roads, and in the driveway leading to the Glocester high school’s main entrance.
The flags were displayed to prepare for the annual Wreaths Across America Veterans Recognition Ceremony held Tuesday, Dec. 13 at the high school.
Of the flag display, Calenda said the students love it. In fact, on Tuesday, the long sidewalk at Ponaganset’s front door was lined on each side by students, each holding an American flag on a roughly ten-foot pole.
The wintery chill and near-blinding sunlight didn’t deter students and other onlookers from standing in the snow-dusted front lawn of the high school observing as the parade drove into the parking lot. Shining in the light were motorcycles and military, police, and firefighter vehicles, some with lights flashing or festooned with waving American, military, POW-MIA and other patriotic flags. These vehicles were followed in the parade by semi-trucks clad in giant painted American flags and bearing slogans: “Honoring Our Nation’s Military,” “Teach the Next Generation,” “Remember the Fallen,” “Wreaths Across America,” or “Remember- Honor -Teach.”
Inside the school were assembled police, firefighters, military members and their families, and others honoring veterans in the Ponaganset community. Police from Glocester, as well as a few other Rhode Island cities and towns in attendance respectfully folded a giant American flag.
“We get tremendous feedback,” said Calenda of the positive reaction to the annual ceremony. “We bring in veterans to speak with the kids. They’re always impressed with the stories of military service.”
One tale that stands out from the past, said Calenda, was from then 93-year-old Pat Femina, a World War II veteran, who died in 2022. Femina told the story of Iwo Jima, and how he came upon a Japanese soldier buried under the rubble and realized the Japanese were defending their country as he was defending the United States.
Calenda noted that the Wreaths Across America visit is, “incorporated into the social studies curriculum,” which was approved by the School Committee in 2007.
“They were very receptive to the program,” he said.
Students have activities before the event including writing letters to veterans, and have a question and answer panel with those who have served. The most common question students ask the veterans is if they have they served in combat, said Calenda.
One veteran said his job for four years was to fuel the ships.
“We’ve had former POWs tell how they were beaten and mistreated,” Calenda said.
Calenda, whose father was a Korean War veteran, is Wreaths Across America’s program director. He said he learned of the organization in 2007 from a friend who attended a ceremony in Massachusetts.
Each year since 2007, the PHS ceremony is held on the Tuesday leading to the Wreaths Across America ceremony at the Rhode Island Veterans Cemetery in Exeter, and at veteran cemeteries nationwide.
The organization was founded by Morrill and Karen Worcester of Columbia Falls, Maine.
Every year Calenda and Martinelli meet those founders.
“They’re wonderful people,” Calenda said.
Morrill Worcester was a 12-year-old newspaper boy when he won a contest for a trip to Washington, DC and was impressed with the Arlington National Cemetery in nearby Virginia.
“Ten years later Worcester was in the wreath business,” at Worcester Wreath Company, Calenda explained.
In 1992, he had 5,000 left over at the end of the season and got permission to place the wreaths at Arlington, Calenda said.
Every year, Worcester and his workers place wreaths at that famous resting place of soldiers and political figures.
In 2005, “a Pentagon person took a photo of wreaths on graves at Arlington that went viral.”
“People went berserk and sent Worcester money,” said Calenda.
Worcester used the funds to form the non-profit, with the goal of placing a wreath on each of the 387,000 graves at Arlington. His latest goal is to place a wreath on every grave at all the veterans’ cemeteries in America.
This past Tuesday, just as Ponaganset honored the veterans, Lockheed Martin Corporation announced in a press release they’re donating $240,000 to WAA.
“The generous contribution from Lockheed Martin helps us to ensure that we will be able to remember service members laid to rest in communities across the country,” said Executive Director Karen Worcester. “And through the simple act of placing these wreaths, we teach about our nation’s history and what it means to serve. Lockheed Martin understands the impact this has on the next generation, and we are so grateful for their support.”
The theme for this year’s WAA celebration is, “find a way to serve,” explained Caldena, and the organization’s mission is “Remember, Honor, and Teach.” Calenda said the, “teach,” part has big appeal for him.
Across America, many are answering the call from WAA.
This Saturday, Dec. 17, some 2.5 million wreaths from Maine will be delivered to more than 3,700 cemeteries in the 50 states, “and several U.S. territories, among them Guam, Puerto Rico and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.”
“Hundreds of thousands of people volunteer for the event every year, including an estimated 80,000 at Arlington National Cemetery in 2018, placing wreaths on the graves of the estimated 400,000 service members in a driving rain and nearly freezing temperatures,” according to Transport Topics.
In Rhode Island, the Wreaths Across America ceremony will be held at the Rhode Island Veterans Memorial Cemetery at 301 South County Trail in Exeter.
To learn more about Wreaths Across America, such as opportunities to volunteer or donate, visit wreathsacrossamerica.org or call (877) 385-9504.