Families open their homes to recruits

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WILDWOOD CREST- During this season of giving, many Cape May County families are taking the time to say thank you to local recruits. 

This Christmas Day, 206 Coast Guard recruits from the Cape May Coast Guard Training Center will spend the holiday with 79 local families and veterans organizations through the American Red Cross Operation Fireside program.

Hilda Orlando and her husband Joe have been offering their Wildwood Crest home to recruits on Christmas Day for the past 12 years.

“Throughout the day, they keep thanking us,” Hilda Orlando said. “But we get so much more from it.”

Orlando said she and her husband began hosting recruits through Operation Fireside because her son was in the Coast Guard. She said that her son had entered basic training during the Easter holiday, and she had missed him at the family’s Easter dinner. As difficult as that was, Orlando said, she sympathized even more so with families that would be missing loved ones during Thanksgiving or Christmas because they were completing training.

“One mother I knew called me and said she had visions of her son being alone in a cold dark barrack on Christmas Day,” she said. After that, she and her group of friends began hosting recruits for the holidays.

According to Donna Croskey, Operation Fireside coordinator for the Red Cross, many host families throughout the county will volunteer for both holidays. She added that the program is one of the most popular for the Red Cross, and some families wishing to host a recruit end up on a waiting list if they volunteer late in the year.

On Christmas Day, Croskey said, she and her husband will pick up their recruit around noon, and then give them a tour of local sites. She said that most recruits have not been outside the training center since arriving, so she is sure to show them Cape May, Cape May Point, and the Wildwood Boardwalk on Christmas Day.

The Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May is the only basic training facility for the Coast Guard in the nation. Recruits go through an eight week training session before being given their first assignments. The recruits are not allowed off base until the day before graduation, with the exception of the Operation Fireside visits.

“The boardwalk is sort of a spooky place on Christmas Day,” Orlando joked, “But we try to explain to them the smells, sights and sounds of summer on the boardwalk.”

After the tour, Orlando said she and her husband have lunch with their recruit. Then, they pass one of their cell phones off to him or her, and give them a few hours of free time. Later that night, they will sit down to dinner together before returning to the training center.

Orlando said she hosts recruits Christmas Day because she spends Christmas Eve with her children at her daughter’s home. She said she is unable to host a recruit for Thanksgiving because she spends that day with her family, and joked that her children “would get jealous.”

Operation Fireside, Croskey said, was started in 1981 and has been coordinated annually by the American Red Cross Southern Shore Chapter in Cape May Court House. She said it was one of the most unique programs offered through the chapter.

“When you pick them up, they are stiff as a bored,” Orlando said. “But by the end of the day, they are hugging and kissing, it’s really something to see. It’s a very enjoyable day, and a truly rewarding experience.”

Christie Rotondo can be emailed at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or you can comment on this story at www.shorenewstoday.com

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