Nearly 20 years ago, Andover Youth Services Director Bill Fahey was thinking hard about how he and his staff could raise extra money for their programs.
He knew bake sales don’t bring in much cash and begging for donations isn’t terribly effective either.
His friend and fellow town employee, Veterans Services Officer John J. Lewis, gave him an idea. Why not set up a Christmas tree lot?
Lewis and his wife, Mary, ran a florist shop in Lowell for many years and knew a thing or two about selling Christmas trees, wreaths and centerpieces.
Fahey wasn’t sure if that would bring in much money, but he respected Lewis and followed his advice.
Fast forward to today and the Andover Youth Services Christmas tree lot, located in the skateboard park behind West Middle School, has become a local institution. Fahey, other staffers and dozens of young people unload the trees from flatbed trucks, stack them and wait on customers.
“This is our 17th year,” Fahey said in the days leading up to Christmas.
They start selling the trees the Saturday after Thanksgiving and stay on the job until all of them have been purchased.
The last tree is usually sold a few days before Christmas, Fahey said.
There is much more to this operation than a bunch of young people selling Christmas trees and raising money for the youth center at 40 Whittier Court.
Nurturing a strong work ethic, learning entrepreneurial skills and putting others above self are also part of this annual endeavor, according to Fahey.
Each year, shortly after Veterans Day, Fahey and company head for Donald and Davida Scott’s farm in Fredericton, New Brunswick, where they cut down nearly 2,000 balsam firs.
Then they load the trees onto flatbed trucks, which transport the evergreen cargo to Andover. It usually takes three or four trucks to bring the trees down from Canada, Fahey said.
Besides all those trees, the Scotts’ farm also sends down hundreds of wreaths ranging in size from 12 to 72 inches.
Tony Lombardi, a program coordinator for Andover Youth Services, pointed out that the 100 or so young people who contribute to the enterprise work for free. Harvesting the trees at the Scotts’ farm is hard labor, he noted, and they work 12-hour days.
“They feel good about what they’re doing,” he said.
Megan Zalanskas graduated from Andover High School last June and is now in her freshman year at the University of Vermont. She hopes to teach middle school English.
She was working at the lot recently.
She has participated in Andover Youth Services programs, including the Christmas tree enterprise, since she was in the eighth grade, she said.
Now that she’s in college, why is she back on the lot?
“It’s an awesome community here,” she said.
Ben Levine, 23, recently graduated from Clark University with a degree in psychology. He is now studying toward a master’s degree in business administration. He has benefited from Andover Youth Services since he was 14, he said.
Levine was also working at the lot recently along with several middle- and high-schoolers.
Working at the Christmas tree lot each year and participating in the other Youth Services programs have helped him grow as a person, he said.
“They (Fahey, Lombardi and other staffers) have helped me develop in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to do on my own,” he said.
Finding an adequate source for the trees was a challenge, Fahey said. He reached out to his friend, Andover High’s legendary track coach Peter Comeau, who did an internet search for a supplier.
Comeau’s research led to the head of a worldwide association of Christmas tree growers, he said. In Fredericton, Fahey met the tree mogul, who referred him to Scott. From there, the relationship has flourished.
“I’m just awestruck,” Scott said in a telephone interview.
He is impressed with how the young people from Andover approach the hard work of cutting down the trees and loading them onto trucks with enthusiasm.
“They really enjoy it,” said Scott, whose farm also produces maple syrup. “We appreciate their coming here.”
The Andover Youth Services operation has been officially named the John J. Lewis Christmas Tree Lot. Lewis, who died in 2014 at the age of 90, was Andover’s veterans services officer for many years.
He was a Navy veteran of World War II and served as a gunner’s mate. He participated in several invasions, including the attack on Iwo Jima.