LEWISTON, Maine — A troop of Scouts, with the help of some local veterans and state lawmakers, is bringing a holiday tradition it started in 2011 in Auburn to the State House. Boy Scouts of America Troop 111 will install its Tree of Honor in the State House Hall of Flags on Friday, Dec. 6. The troop first installed trees in the Auburn Mall and Lewiston Mall in 2011 as a way of helping the troop connect with local veterans, according to Jerry DeWitt, commander of Lewiston’s American Legion Post 22.
Those with family members who are veterans or with family still serving fill out a card with the veteran’s name, write a message and then hang the card on the tree like an ornament.
DeWitt said so many cards were filled out in 2012, they needed to add a tree to the Auburn Mall location.
DeWitt has collected the cards over the years and has at least 900 of them now, he said. He read one of the cards addressed to a woman’s late father.
“I am everything because you loved me, love your baby,” the card read in part.
“Some of the sentiments on these are pretty touching,” DeWitt said Wednesday flipping through a stack of the cards. Some are made out in memory to those lost in war. Cards representing veterans from World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, as well as the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are among the stack.
DeWitt said veterans also put cards on the tree for other veterans.
An Army veteran and a VISTA volunteer who does outreach work with veterans in Maine, DeWitt credited the Scouts with doing most of the work for the project.
“And they do get to learn something of what it’s like to be a veteran,” he said.
He said the idea of bringing the Tree of Honor to the Maine State House is an effort at expanding the project statewide.
As it is, he said, people from as far away as Presque Isle have mailed him cards to hang on the tree in honor of their veterans.
“For a lot of family members and veterans, the holidays can be a really tough time,” Troop 111′s assistant troop leader Jeremy McElfresh said.
He said the Scouts set the trees up and then make sure on a regular basis that there are blank cards available for people to fill out.
“It’s pretty common as we are there, we have veterans that are there who will stop by or family members who have loved ones deployed and that kind of thing, and they express their appreciation and how important it is to them,” McElfresh said. “So the boys get to witness that and make that kind of connection.”
McElfresh also said that when the group first approached mall officials about the idea, they were a little hesitant, but the trees have been such a hit with shoppers that the mall is now calling them to ask when they are putting up the trees.
Next Friday, a group of Lewiston-Auburn lawmakers, including state Reps. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston; Wayne Werts, D-Auburn; and state Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, will be among those joining the Scouts at the Hall of Flags tree installation ceremony.
DeWitt said Rotundo was instrumental in helping the group get the permission it needed to install the artificial tree at the State House.
“She’s just been outstanding in helping us with this,” DeWitt said.
A spokesman for Gov. Paul LePage’s office said the governor approved of the tree installation.
“It’s a great idea, and we fully support it,” Peter Steele, LePage’s communications director, said earlier this week.
DeWitt and McElfresh said they hope people from around Maine will place a card on the tree for the veterans they know.
Those who would like to place a card on the Tree of Honor but are unable to go to either the Auburn Mall or the State House can contact DeWitt by email at email@example.com. They may also send a request by U.S. mail to Jerry DeWitt, 1155 Lisbon St., Lewiston, ME 04243.
The trees will remain up until Dec. 30.