It was six years ago when Mary Ann Dietschler picked up a book at the consignment shop that would change her life. “I picked up a book on the Underground Railroad of the 1800s. It was a narrative of individual people who were caught in the trafficking system back in the South. One story after another, and it was heart wrenching. When slaves escaped, they didn’t have a name or know their birthday. I couldn’t believe one human being could think they could own another human being.”
Although the Underground Railroad is part of the past, that moment in history prompted Mary Ann to question what action she would take if she were alive during that era. “Ideally, I like to think I would have been a part of the Underground Railroad. Realistically, if I had lived during that time with three children in the North, it wouldn’t have affected me personally. I might have said, ‘that’s a terrible thing’ and did nothing. What would happen today if there were such a thing?”
Mary Ann never expected to receive an email from a friend that would answer this very question. The email was regarding Operation Underground Railroad, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending human trafficking. Groups such as former CIA members, Navy Seals, Special Ops and law enforcement enter trafficking areas and pose as buyers to rescue children caught in the trade. According to the Polaris Project, a nonprofit organization against human trafficking, the International Labour Organization estimates 40.3 million victims of human trafficking globally. Of that statistic, 25% are children. Between being a grandmother and her knowledge of the Underground Railroad, Mary Ann was instantaneously compelled to help the operation. “I have a heart for that because I have four grandchildren. I have no idea how a child can be trafficked for the pleasure of someone else. It broke my heart.”
Wanting to help Operation Underground Railroad, Mary Ann began utilizing her creative abilities to raise donations for the nonprofit. In May 2014, she handmade a wreath based off of one she saw in a magazine. Her friend liked it so much, she asked Mary Ann to duplicate it for her. Rather than accepting money for it, Mary Ann requested that her friend write a check to Operation Underground Railroad. Through word of mouth, Mary Ann soon had several requests for handmade wreaths. This was the beginning of Wreaths with a Reason, Mary Ann’s business dedicated to fundraising for Operation Underground Railroad.
To date, Mary Ann and her group of five volunteers have raised over $38,000 for the organization through custom wreath sales. She never knew how big her efforts would become. “We were out to dinner with friends one night. One of my friends asked to come help and she was crafty, so I was okay with that. She started making wreaths with me and was my first volunteer. I had no idea how far this would go. It wasn’t long before my craft room was too crowded.”
The supplies are typically purchased by volunteers for their creations. Every month, Savers Thrift Store in East Springfield donates a number of supplies to the cause. Mary Ann also works with wholesalers to purchase them.
The group now meets in Mary Ann’s Agawam, Massachusetts’s basement, where they hand create stunning wreaths themed around Christmas, Valentine’s Day and every day in between. Although it can be daunting for a group of six people to hand-make several wreaths, Mary Ann explained, “We think of it as ‘one wreath at a time.’”
Mary Ann believes that while no money is made for personal gain from the creation of the wreaths, volunteers can feel good about the work they are doing. “When someone wants to volunteer, I tell them it might cost them money in supplies. They may have to give up space in their homes for wreaths. But we are making a difference. We might not see the rewards here on this Earth, but I always tell my volunteers that someday, some little kid in Heaven will come to them and thank them for what they have done. That’s what compels us; the fact that we are making a difference.”
Wreaths with a Reason sells their wreaths year-round, taking them to craft fairs and featuring them in storefronts. Auntie Cathie of Auntie Cathie’s Kitchen in Agawam has begun displaying completed creations on the walls of her bakery to help spread the word and earn donations for Operation Underground Railroad. Wreaths with a Reason also offers sales of wreaths through their website, but Mary Ann suggests those interested in purchasing one stop by and look at them before they settle on a design. “If I’m going to buy something, I want to see it in person. In the winter, my garage has two full walls where wreaths are hanging so people can call or text me and see them for themselves. Sometimes I will say, ‘take two home, try them out.’”
When it comes to giving back, some may not know how, or if, they can truly help out. To that, Mary Ann has one suggestion. “I would tell people ‘to give to that which breaks their heart’. It might not be human trafficking, but it might be something else. Find a way to volunteer and get their feet wet. Do something and take action.” When Mary Ann started helping Operation Underground Railroad, she began by sending in $25 a month. “My first time into this was ‘okay, I’ll support this organization,’ and I wanted to do more and more.”
Mary Ann also believes that there is a place in giving back for everybody. “So many areas need help. There are all sorts of opportunities. You think, ‘is this a good fit for me?’ Some of my friends started and it wasn’t long before we realized it wasn’t a good fit for them. Now one of my friends teaches Sunday school. It depends on your individual gifts. It’s about finding your gift.”
Mary Ann will continue to support Operation Underground Railroad and help in every way possible. “I started off making most of the wreaths, and now I make some and do other stuff within the group. I oversee it now but enjoy making the wreaths. I would spend Mondays in my craft room and it was therapy. Now it’s Monday afternoon and I have a house full.”
She encourages everyone to get out and help. “Do something, we can all complain about the way things are. But instead of complaining, get in there and make some changes.”
To purchase a wreath from Wreaths with a Reason, visit www.wreathswithareason.com or call 413-218-6231. To learn more about Operation Underground Railroad and how you can help, visit ourrescue.org