Santa Claus is known for delivering presents in his sleigh, but sometimes he even offers motorcycle-delivery of the tree for those presents to go underneath.
In an effort spearheaded by local veterans groups, Eau Claire residents will have the opportunity to take home free spruce trees for their homes or yards for the second Christmas season in a row. Those within a 100-mile radius can even have them delivered.
Last year, local volunteers dressed up as Santa and Mrs. Claus and hand-delivered trees to people around the area. Shortly after a photo ran in the newspaper, Dave Zien, a veteran and former state senator who came up with the free tree idea, received an excited call from a man in Tucson, Ariz., who recognized his grandson as the holly, jolly man of Christmas.
The tree giveaway was so well-received in its first year that the participating veterans organizations — including Wheels of Liberty, Wisconsin Veterans Home at Chippewa Falls and Road 2 Freedom — decided to do it again. Six people currently are signed up to be delivery drivers, but Zien said there’s always room for more.
“The problem is, a lot of people who don’t have the money to buy a tree don’t have a car, so they don’t have a way to get out here,” said Bob Heller, founder of Uncle Bob’s Happy Widow Program and one of the project’s volunteers.
On Sunday afternoon, Zien, Heller and a few more volunteers shared stories around a fire between Roadside Diner and Mac’s Seat Cover on Menomonie Street while they listened to the Green Bay Packers game and waited for residents to stop by and take home a symbol of the season. Though the volunteers will rotate, the group will be there every day from 8 a.m. to nightfall until Christmas Eve, ready to help people pick out, cut and tie trees on the roofs of cars.
”There’s something about real Christmas trees: the aroma, the look, even the feel,” Zien said. “There’s an energy about them.” It’s an energy that he said everyone deserves to feel, regardless of if they can afford to buy a tree. He noted this is not in any way an attempt to undermine those who sell trees for profit. In fact, he said, he hopes real Christmas trees sell out — it’s just about spreading the spirit.
Although the trees are free, courtesy of several area veterans groups, those who feel inclined can deposit money in a donation box on the side of the site’s warming hut. Any money donated will be distributed among area veterans organizations.
Zien said he has been impressed with the number of people who have thus far felt inclined to donate. Throughout the first day, the donation box was filled with $466.
Dodie Neuenfeldt, president of the Augusta VFW Auxiliary, said the cause is one that simply makes sense.
“It’s vets helping vets,” Neuenfeldt said. “It’s always been that way.”
The free-will tree offering is a way for veterans to help out each other and other community members.
Shortly after the end of the Packers game, Elizabeth Robert of Eau Claire stopped by the free tree stand for her second time that day to collect boughs for porch pot decorations for herself and her friends. She had initially seen the display on her way home from church, but she came back wearing mittens so she could better handle the piney branches.
Taking these boughs home with her got her in the Christmas spirit, Robert said, and she had been decorating all day. She said the smell of pine reminded her of childhood memories when her family would always have a real Christmas tree. Plus, it allowed her to support local causes.
“It’s just wonderful,” Robert said. “It creates a great awareness of giving back and helping out in your community.”