TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — 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-and-breakfasts 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."
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