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A touch of home for the holidays

Volunteers gather to create, send Christmas trees to military personnel

Fourth-grader Britta Wellenstein places an ornament on a Tree From Home at St. John's Lutheran School in Glendale on Sept. 30.

Fourth-grader Britta Wellenstein places an ornament on a Tree From Home at St. John's Lutheran School in Glendale on Sept. 30. Photo By C.T. Kruger

Oct. 5, 2011

Glendale - The students at St. John's Lutheran School had a chance to be Christmas elves last week, decorating 12-inch artificial trees that will brighten the holidays for soldiers and sailors who are overseas.

Working in small groups that included both older and younger children, the students helped Julie Stuhlmacher and Trees from Home come close to wrapping up an ambitious project that concludes with the mailing of 2,500 priority mail packages on Nov. 11.

Tables lined with trees, tree skirts and a variety of small decorations provided work stations for all. A student in the eighth grade manned the glue gun used to secure decorations to the trees.

"When you are done decorating the tree, it has to pass the shake test," said Jim Buss, the director of Christian Education. He gave a vigorous shake to an upside down tree extending from his hand. Some decorations dropped to the floor and it was back to the students and the glue gun for some repair.

Started with a gift from mom

Trees from Home got its start as a formal organization three years ago, but its roots come from the deployment of John Stuhlmacher, Julie's son. A member of the National Guard, he went to Iraq in 2002-2003.

Julie decorated a small tree and sent it to him.

"My tree was red metallic," John said, taking a break from moving around the room and helping to distribute the ornaments to the students. "Everything in Iraq, I was in Baghdad, was tan. Our uniforms were tan, the sand was tan, the trucks were tan."

A few other soldiers also got trees from home and the brightly decorated trees were welcome additions to the bland landscape.

"It was a way to escape to reality," John said, noting the tree connected them to their lives back home.

Then in 2009, John's wife, Kristina, was deployed with her unit overseas.

"John told me I needed to do the trees again," Julie said. She ordered enough product for 144 decorated tress and sent 1,030.

"Everyone jumped on board to help," she said.

In 2010, Trees from Home sent 1,530. This year they will send 2,500.

"They go anywhere there are deployed soldiers or sailors, anywhere that soldiers won't be home for Christmas," Julie said.

Care package from Santa

Each box has a decorated tree, ear buds donated by Koss Stereo Phone, a toothbrush, toothpaste, pens, a hacky sack ball, playing cards, jelly beans, lip balm and hand sanitizer. Harley-Davidson donates military bandannas.

Julie and others collect unused Christmas cards all year long and put three cards into each package.

"They are cards they can send to someone," Julie said.

John knows how welcome the packages can be.

"Everyone gets one," he said. "There are some people who never get a piece of mail and this means a lot. And the gifts are so useful."

Julie has a large scrapbook full of photographs, letters and copies of emails sent by grateful recipients.

She and her husband, Tom, own Winkie's in Whitefish Bay and are able to purchase the trees and decorations at wholesale prices, keeping costs down. The second floor above Winkle's is Trees from Home central, where volunteers come beginning in late June to begin decorating the trees. Later the boxes are filled, sealed and readied for mailing. Each one has to have a customs form inside.

Donations help cover shipping

The budget for the 2011 project is $50,000, with the majority of the money going for postage. A $20 donation covers the box, contents and mailing.

"We need money for postage now," Julie said.

A table in the center of the room filled rather quickly with decorated trees.

"I think this was really productive, how we were able to really help our troops," said eighth-grade student Alysse Elko who wielded a glue gun. "They protect us and it shows appreciation for what they are doing."

Buss said students' participation is part of a year-round effort at the school - and church - have had since 9/11.

"The church collected supplies and took them to Ft. McCoy when John's (Stuhlmacher) unit deployed," he said.

Students have chapel on Wednesdays and have been bringing money as chapel offerings. That money is being used for Operation Care Package, another group providing holiday cheer for soldiers, he said.

The school recognizes the events of 9/11, Constitution Day and other days important to U.S. history.

"We like to instill a feeling of honor and respect for our country," Buss said.

A number of people have taken the project to heart, including the employees at the North Shore Post Office in Glendale.

"A number of them have volunteered to come in on Veterans Day, Nov.11, when the post office is closed, so we can mail the packages that day," Julie said. They will arrive at their far flung destinations in time for Christmas.

LIKE TO HELP?

Donations for Trees from Home may be sent to:

Trees from Home, Inc.

Julie Stuhlmacher, president

2130 W. Brantwood Ave., Glendale, 53209-3414

Make checks payable to: Trees from Home, Inc.

HONORING VETERANS

WHO: The Men's Ministry at St. John's Lutheran Church

WHAT: hosting a thank you spaghetti supper in honor of veterans, an early Veteran's Day remembrance; Five Lutheran congregations will nominate a veteran of note who will be honored at the dinner.

WHEN: Nov. 4

COST: free for veterans; $5 for a guest

SPEAKER: Dr. Kenneth Lee will be the speaker at the dinner. He is the chief of Spinal Cord Injury Division at Zablocki VAMC and Assistant Professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Dr. Lee joined the Army in 1986 and currently holds the rank of colonel in the Wisconsin Army National Guard with the duty assignment of State Surgeon.

CONTACT: For more information about the dinner, contact Jim Buss at jim.buss@stjohnglendale.com

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