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One Christmas Tree at a Time, Giving Back to Those Who Serve

November 30, 2018 - 2:12 pm

LEOMINSTER -- Now in its eighth year, Operation Service has come a long way.

First offering a couple dozen Christmas trees to families of active military members as Trees for Soldiers, the organization now donates hundreds of trees to both active personnel and veterans at the Gardener’s Spot in Leominster. And for those involved, the growth is a welcome thing.

“Originally, we were just doing it for active military,” said Operation Service founder Joe Firmani. “At the time, it was Iraq and Afghanistan and we had friends who had been deployed for the second (or) third time, and we saw the financial struggles people were going through. Thirty bucks might not seem like a lot, but for these guys, it was going a long way. For some of the veterans, it was a psychological thing, seeing that tree and your kids on Christmas morning.

“When we saw the impact, that’s when we decided we were doing it for everyone, veterans and active. We weren’t going to skip anybody.”

The 501c3 non-profit organization gave nearly 500 trees last year and anticipates even more being handed out this year, with a trip to Devens scheduled for Dec. 14.

It’s a cause that Gardener’s Spot owner and Operation Service member Neil Zanni is proud to be a part of.

“They all have their own situations, their own struggles and needs, and we want to help however we can,” Zanni said. “We’re giving something to each vet and sometimes it’s a lot more than a tree. It’s building connections and building a community. We’re trying to have that outreach to our city and military community, and bring them together.”

To participate, individuals simply need to show up, sign their name and military branch, and then pick out a tree. In the first two days of operating this season, Operation Service -- comprised of Firmani and his wife Cathy, Zanni, Janet Gelinas and Diane Beudoin -- has already distributed somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 trees.

“Our numbers have gone up every year and we hope they keep going,” Firmani said. “We’ll eventually have to cap it, but we’re not there yet.”

In addition to its Christmas trees, Operation Service is offering knit hats, scarves, gloves, mittens and clothing to anyone who needs it during their stop at the Gardener’s Spot. Warmer Winters -- an outreach program put together by knitters -- has sent several bags of seasonal accessories that are available to those picking up trees.

In Devens, the group will be joined by members of the Boston Bruins Foundation, which helped last year in Leominster. Firmani said many that while many individuals have chipped in, the Boston Bruins Foundation and Digital Federal Credit Union are among the corporations that have consistently stepped up for the organization.

“These are men and women who make so many sacrifices that you love being able to help them,” Zanni said. “And it’s not just them; their families make sacrifices as well. It’s really nice to be able to help.”

Firmani has worked in other causes involving the military, playing a crucial role in bringing The Wall that Heals to both Leominster and Fitchburg. He says he’s thrilled to be able to help the communities around the Twin Cities.

“I’ve searched for groups doing what we do and I found one, but they ship out thousands of trees to active military members,” Firmani said. “That’s wonderful on such a large scale, but we’re happy to be focused on staying local.”

In addition to his usual staff, Zanni has seen a plethora of volunteers step in to take some hours, which is a plus from multiple angles.

“From a logistics standpoint, having volunteers come in here is fantastic. And you see that it’s a community coming together,” Zanni said. “It’s not just veterans coming in for a tree; it’s members of the community coming in and helping and spreading the word. It’s pulling two worlds together, building connections.”

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