ROCHESTER, N.Y. — There are boxes of Christmas trees stacked in Suzanne Stokoe’s barn addressed to local soldiers serving overseas.
On the boxes are their names: Andrew, Justin, Troy, Scott, Elizabeth, and Daniel to name a few. And all carry the same labels: “Return to Sender.”
“We collect money year-round for this,” Stokoe said, flipping through notes from a soldier’s wife, from parents, grandparents. “The hardest thing is having to contact these people.”
The trees were sent back to the Scottsville post office with a message from the U.S. Department of State Diplomatic Pouch and Mail Service that they all are oversized — the apparent result of federal policy change made just days before the annual shipments.
Sixteen trees came back. But 21 apparently went through, packaged with hand-made ornaments, notes and candy with help from the Chili Senior Center, area American Legion posts and Stokoe staff and volunteers. Over in Clifton Springs, Ontario County, Dick Darling with Darling’s Tree Farm sent out 55 packaged trees to soldiers. Twenty-one have come back.
The local programs are separate from Trees for Troops — a partnership of the Christmas Tree Foundation and FedEx that annually sends trees to military bases but not individuals — and does not seem to have been affected.
What has snagged the local programs are new regulations, apparently issued on Nov. 27, that tightened restrictions for certain military posts, notably scaling back the maximize size of packages that would be allowed. But tree farmers who have coordinated these programs for the past decade were not aware. Neither were the postal workers, who accepted the trees and payment, .
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer has called on U.S. Postal Service Postmaster General Megan Brennan to waive any procedural changes for the holidays, blaming the hiccup on a combination of federal agencies including the Departments of State and Defense.
“Refusing to deliver donated Christmas trees to soldiers serving abroad is straight out of the Grinch’s playbook and flies in the face of Christmas spirit,” Schumer said in a news release. In his letter to Brennan, he asked that the packaged trees be accepted and receive expedited shipping, free of charge.
“We’re running out of time,” Darling said, as it typically takes two weeks to get the packages delivered. “There is no way we can turn around and ship these and get them there by Christmas.”
Of the 55 trees he shipped, 31 were sponsored by second-graders at local Midlakes grade school, addressed to local graduates now in the military with a class photo and a letter, asking the soldiers to write back and to visit when on leave. Seven or eight of those tree boxes are now stacked in Darling’s barn.
How common such direct shipment programs are is unclear. Mary Jeanne Packer, executive director for the Christmas Tree Farmers Association of New York, said she only was aware of the handful of farmers affected in the local area. Darling said he has fielded requests for tree shipments from people in Texas, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Lack of publicity
“What irks me is … why didn’t they publicize this so we knew?” he said, now needing to figure out how to explain all this to a bunch of second-graders. “There was nothing ever said about this. It just sort of appears, and it’s made a mess of our whole program.”
Stokoe is so upset she’s figuring she will refund some of the soldiers families’ money out of her own pocket. Packer thinks the U.S. Postal Service should at least refund the shipping.
“My Christmas wish is if these trees could get to their intended people,” Stokoe said, looking at the stack of boxes. “But this short time frame, I know sure how that could happen.”