SALEM — When Mark Lovely brought the Wreaths Across America program to Salem four years ago, it started off with 486 wreaths. The next year it was 870. The year after that, 1,625.
On a cold Thursday morning at Greenlawn Cemetery, an 18-wheeler rolled up with the haul of wreaths for the 2016 edition of Salem Wreaths Across America that will take place on Saturday.
The count? Two thousand four hundred and thirty-nine.
As cemetery workers unloaded the 271 boxes containing the wreaths, volunteer Christine Lutts pointed to Lovely and said, "He's the reason this all comes together."
The Wreaths Across America program began in 2007, when an annual wreath-laying ceremony to honor veterans at Arlington National Cemetery was expanded to include cemeteries around the country. Lovely, who served as an Army medic in Vietnam from 1970 to 1972, read about the program a few years ago and decide to bring it to his hometown of Salem.
Local organizers are responsible for raising money to buy the wreaths, which cost $15 each. Lovely said he received a $15,000 donation from New England Chevy Dealers, and another $15,000 from an anonymous donor. He also put on a fundraising carnival at the Salem Willows last summer, and receives donations from individuals who sponsor wreaths.
"It's $15 here, $15 there from people," he said.
The wreaths, which were trucked down from Columbia Falls, Maine, will be laid on the graves of veterans in Greenlawn Cemetery after a remembrance ceremony at noon on Saturday, when similar ceremonies will be held at an estimated 1,200 locations across the country.
The ceremony will be hosted by Salem state Rep. Paul Tucker and will include veterans groups, Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, and ROTC groups from Salem and Peabody high schools.
Lovely said he wants to continue to grow the program until there are enough wreaths to cover veterans graves in all of Salem's cemeteries. The wreaths are laid by dozens of volunteers, many of them children.
"It teaches the kids that freedom came at a price," Lovely said.
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or email@example.com.