Strangers open their homes to U.S. Coast Guard re­cruits for Thanks­giv­ing

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - OBITUARIES - By Shawn Marsh

Young men and women train­ing to be­come mem­bers of the U.S. Coast Guard will en­joy a home-cooked meal thanks to strangers who wel­come them into their south­ern New Jer­sey homes for Thanks­giv­ing and Christ­mas as part of a tra­di­tion that has taken place for 33 years.

Op­er­a­tion Fire­side grew from ef­forts by the Amer­i­can Red Cross to care for ser­vice mem­bers, said Red Cross New Jer­sey Re­gion spokes­woman Laura Stein­metz. This year, 160 fam­i­lies will host 350 re­cruits for Thanks­giv­ing and 390 for Christ­mas.

The Coast Guard Train­ing Cen­ter in Cape May is the ser­vice’s only fa­cil­ity that trans­forms vol­un­teers into en­listed per­son­nel dur­ing a 53-day pro­gram of ex­er­cise, drills, and stud­ies from 5 a.m. un­til 10 p.m., seven days a week. Many of the young adults are away from home for the first time. Re­cruits ar­rive in the dark so they never get to see Cape May, one of New Jer­sey’s most ro­man­tic re­sorts, fea­tur­ing Vic­to­rian bed-and­break­fasts that wel­come vis­i­tors year round.

For Lt. J.G. Kathleen Dil­lon, 28, Op­er­a­tion Fire­side helped her feel part of the com­mu­nity when she was a 22-year-old re­cruit from Al­bany, New York.

“It was a great ex­pe­ri­ence and was nice to have a break from ba­sic train­ing and the chal­lenges,” she said. “You feel con­nected to the com­mu­nity through typ­i­cal hol­i­day things such as food and chat­ting.”

The host fam­i­lies meet their re­cruits at the train­ing cen­ter for the day­long visit. “They’re stiff as boards when you pick them up and scared to death,” said Hilda Or­lando, of Wild­wood Crest. She and her hus­band, Joe, have been host­ing re­cruits for 18 years.

They take their re­cruits on a tour of the area be­fore tak­ing them home, where they can use the cell­phones that they sur­ren­der at the start of boot camp to call fam­ily and friends. Richard and Sheila Brown, of North Wild­wood, are host­ing 10 re­cruits at their Sum­mer Nites B&B.

“The first thing we do is put them in the Elvis suite, our big­gest, and tell them to take off their boots and re­lax. We have a game room with a pool ta­ble where they love to hang out,” said Sheila Brown. It’s the one time they don’t have to say ‘Yes, sir’ or ‘No, ma’am.’”

She pre­pares three turkey breasts, a ham and all the fix­ings for the re­cruits.

Hilda Or­lando makes sure they all get freshly baked choco­late chip cook­ies be­fore they leave be­cause they’re not per­mit­ted sweets on the base.

“It was a nice men­tal break and gave me the mo­ti­va­tion to go back and fin­ish it off,” Dil­lon said.

Capt. Owen Gib­bons, com­mand­ing of­fi­cer of the train­ing cen­ter, said re­cruits “are ab­so­lutely buoyed to get to the fin­ish line” of train­ing af­ter ex­pe­ri­enc­ing their first pub­lic ap­pre­ci­a­tion for their commitment to the ser­vice.

Life­time friend­ships be­tween re­cruits and fam­i­lies are of­ten formed.

The Or­lan­dos at­tend grad­u­a­tions to meet the re­cruits’ fam­i­lies. The Browns stay in touch though so­cial me­dia, and the grad­u­ates some­times re­turn to show their fam­i­lies where they spent Thanks­giv­ing.

One woman who has hosted re­cruits ev­ery year since the pro­gram be­gan has col­lected four ta­ble cloths with the re­cruits’ sig­na­tures.

“While the kids don’t have a clue what they’re get­ting into,” Hilda Or­lando said, “they don’t un­der­stand how much we get out of it.”

In this Jan. 24, 2008, file photo, Jen­nifer Stan­ton, right, a drill in­struc­tor at Coast Guard Train­ing Cen­ter Cape May, shouts in­struc­tions to new re­cruits dur­ing boot camp at the base.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHO­TOS

In this Nov. 22, 2007, file photo, U.S. Coast Guard re­cruits Stephanie Perez, right, and Angela Kennedy, sec­ond right, along with Kristina Gschei­dle, left, and Emily Gschei­dle, cen­ter, en­joy a Thanks­giv­ing brunch at the home of Ginny Beale, sec­ond left, in Lower Town­ship, N.J.

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