NEWMAN - Wreaths will be placed on the graves of more than 200 veterans laid to rest in Hills Ferry Cemetery Friday morning, Dec. 13, as part of a nationwide program with the mission of ensuring that those who served are remembered during the holiday season.

The small rural cemetery this year joins more than 1,600 locations across the United States which are participating in the Wreaths Across America program.

Local coordinator RoseLee Hurst said a small number of wreaths ordered through San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery last year were placed on Hills Ferry graves.

This year, Hurst said, Hills Ferry is formally part of the Wreaths Across America network.

On Friday, dignitaries, veterans and community members will gather in Hills Ferry Cemetery for a 9 a.m. Wreaths Across America program. Marine Corps veteran Duke Cooper, who is affiliated with the Riverbank-based veteran support group American Veterans First, will be the keynote speaker.

The program will also include ceremonial presentation of wreaths representing each branch of the military, as well as remarks by dignitaries.

Afterward, volunteers will place wreaths on more than 200 veteran graves. Wreaths were sponsored by various organizations and individuals, Hurst said. The local campaign was bolstered by its affiliation with Blue Star Mothers, which provided a free wreath for every two sponsored.

That affiliation allowed the first-year effort to provide wreaths for as many veteran graves as possible, said Hurst, whose ultimate goal is to be able to place a wreath on each of the more 800 veteran graves in Hills Ferry Cemetery.

Hurst became involved in the Wreaths Across America as a volunteer helping with the observance at San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery near Santa Nella (which will hold its program Saturday morning at 9 a.m.).

She eventually decided to bring the program to the local cemetery so veterans buried at Hills Ferry receive the same recognition.

“We have so many veterans who were buried out there (at Hills Ferry Cemetery) before, and even after San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery came into being,” Hurst stated.  “It is important that those veterans are not forgotten.”

The mission of the Wreaths Across America organization is to remember fallen veterans, honor those who serve and teach younger generation about those sacrifices and the value of freedom.

Hurst, who was raised in a military family and married a veteran, said the importance of fulling that mission cannot be overstated.

“My heart is with all veterans,” she reflected. “We should honor them in any way we can.”

Wreaths Across America traces its root into the early 1990s, when 5,000 wreaths were donated by Morrill Worcester and the Worcester Wreath Co. to be placed at graves in Arlington National Cemetery.

The organization formally became a non-profit in 2007.

Last year, nearly 1.8 million wreaths were placed on veteran graves in 1,640 locations nationwide and, for the first time, wreaths were placed overseas at the Normandy-American Cemetery in France.