DANVILLE — The holidays are a time to spend with loved ones, but for families who have lost someone in the military, holidays can also be a painful reminder.
Central Illinois gathered this weekend to show those families their heroes are not forgotten. Pailynn Nichols never got to spend a single Christmas with her father.
“She was just a baby. She was only nine months old when he died,” says Alaxandrea Stephenson, Pailynn’s mom.
Kenneth R. Nichols, Jr., was killed in action while serving in Afghanistan, just 24 days before her first Christmas. They never got the chance to unwrap presents together under the tree, but this weekend she gave him a special gift. Pailynn laid a wreath as part of a Wreaths Across America ceremony.
“It’s a bittersweet thing, I guess. She’s just now old enough, we just recently had a conversation with her about what it actually is. Not just a story. I mean it’s nice to be able to see her do it but it’s sad that she even has to,” says Stephenson.
Pailynn wasn’t the only one laying wreaths. Hundreds came from multiple states, braving icy roads to place nearly 3,000 wreaths in Danville National Cemetery.
“We spend time telling them thank you at Memorial Day but at Christmastime, when they really notice that loved one missing, at least this is something little we can do to let them know we still know that that sacrifice, that person is missing and we’re still with you,” says event coordinator Tammy Williams.
But it’s more than just something little. Groups across Central Illinois have been raising money since July. Together, they collected enough for more than twice the wreaths they had last year.
“It’s uplifting. I mean it’s such a small community. There’s so many people that care,” says Stephenson.
With their help, organizers hope to raise enough for 11,000 wreaths next year, so these heroes get a Christmas present, too.
Organizers are looking for corporate sponsorships for next year.