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Selling Christmas wreaths helps hard-pressed families

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A UMNS photo by Jim Melchiorre

Wes Moody "tips" evergreen branches to be used in Christmas wreaths.
Nov. 14, 2005

By James Melchiorre*

SALEM, Maine (UMNS) - Wes Moody measures the tree branch against his forearm, with the tip just touching his elbow.

"We reach in, measure the tip with our elbow and ..."

Snap!

That 14-inch-long tip of a balsam fir tree will soon become part of a Christmas wreath. Displaying wreaths is a Christmas tradition, but in this area of Maine, the time-honored decoration represents something much more: a financial life-saver for local families.

"A lot of the jobs that people had for years and years are gone now," says Kay Webb, a local pastor and director of United Methodist Economic Ministry. "Factories have closed down.

"People are working several part-time jobs, more hours for less money, and no benefits."

United Methodist Economic Ministry has roots in the mountain communities of rural western Maine dating back to the late 1960s.

The ministry's role during the wreath-making season is crucial.

"People have made wreaths in this area for years and years and tried to market them themselves," Webb explains. "The economic ministry decided that, through the connections of the United Methodist Church, we could help with that process. We're the in-between people."

Webb and her small staff serve as coordinators, buying wreaths from the people who make them and then selling to churches and individuals. Many of the wreaths show up as merchandise at the Christmas crafts fairs and bazaars that churches sponsor in the days immediately before and after Thanksgiving.

The wreaths sell for $8 apiece. All but 50 cents goes back to the wreath-makers.

About 20 families will produce a total of 2,000 wreaths this season, according to Crystal Cook, who oversees the program.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Jim Melchiorre

Pastor Kay D. Webb (right) says the United Methodist Economic Ministry's role during the wreath-making season is crucial.
Those families will earn anywhere from a few hundred dollars to more than a thousand, cash that can be vital during November, when agricultural jobs have ended and the seasonal work at nearby ski resorts has yet to begin.

Rhoda Bachelder began making wreaths after her husband, Boyd, became disabled.

"Ours goes to finish off the taxes that we haven't paid during the summer, our yearly taxes and, of course, oil and wood and, if there's any leftover money, Christmas," Bachelder says.

"We've had at least a couple of girls get another semester of college with the help of family members who have done a bunch of wreaths," recalls Joanne Moody. "I really felt good about that."

On an early November afternoon, with the sky gray, temperatures in the 40s, and snow squalls predicted to the north, Joanne and Wes Moody are working quickly at the task known as "tipping," breaking off and collecting tree branches.

Both husband and wife are wearing red jackets and bright orange caps. You can't be too careful, or too visible, when you're wandering through the Maine woods during deer-hunting season.

"I was happy when we had that heavy frost just before Halloween," Joanne Moody says. "I always have to worry: is it going to get cold enough, soon enough, to meet the schedule."

Joanne Moody knows all too well how narrow the window of opportunity can be to make the wreaths that have become essential to the financial lives of so many in this community.

"Tipping" can't begin until the first hard frost; otherwise the balsam fir trees may be damaged.

Most years, in western Maine, in the shadow of Mount Abraham and Saddleback Mountain, that frost comes during the last week of October. Wreaths must be ready to ship by Nov. 15, to arrive in time for the pre-Christmas season of Advent.

"This is a busy time," Joanne Moody says.

"But it's a good time of the year to be busy with things like this because we just changed time, it gets dark, and it gives you something good to do in the evenings."

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Jim Melchiorre

The per-capita income in Franklin County, Maine, is 19 percent below the state average.
Once they finish "tipping," Joanne and Wes Moody join their neighbors around a large table in the conference room of the United Methodist Economic Ministry office in Salem.

Each works on an individual wreath, starting with a wire ring 12 inches in diameter, slowly attaching branches to it. A finished wreath must weigh a minimum of three pounds.

Each is placed on a scale. It's a way to guarantee quality control, and to ensure that this year's buyers become "repeat" customers.

Folks in this community are blessed with the natural beauty of mountains and forests, where balsam fir and larch trees reach heights of 60 and 70 feet.

But they must also deal with the economic challenges of Franklin County where, according to statistics compiled by the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, per-capita income is 19 percent below the state average.

"We try to be the net that catches the folks that fall through the cracks of other programs," Webb says.

"Unfortunately, the need is growing."

The United Methodist Economic Ministry tries to alleviate financial distress year-round, by operating a thrift shop and a food pantry, and by coordinating United Methodist mission teams during the summer. Based in Strong, Maine, it receives support through the denomination's Advance for Christ and His Church giving program (Advance Special #311870).

"They bring in money for materials and work on some of the housing," Webb says.

"Some of the elderly who don't have families around anymore, because the family left to find jobs, we become their support system."

But during late October and the first half of November, that support system changes focus, as local families and the ministry staff dedicate themselves to a single purpose.

It's wreath-making season, when a holiday decoration can also provide economic salvation during a cold Maine winter.

*Melchiorre is a freelance producer based in New York City.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or newsdesk@umcom.org.
 

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