S. Jersey Families Host Military Recruits for Christmas

Whether overseas or on American soil, many servicemen celebrate the holidays away from their families.

But one local program - Operation Fireside - works to find homes for Coast Guard recruits to spend Christmas.

"Just to put all this effort, just for us, people they don't even know," said Ashley Persich, Coast Guard recruit, "I think it's really wonderful."

Persich is one of about 200 young people taking a break from the Coast Guard's demanding eight week bootcamp at its Cape May Training Center by spending Christmas with a South Jersey family.

One volunteer who opened her home prepared sweets and stocked the fridge with soda, just a few of the items recruits are not permitted to eat while on the base. 

"It's one way we can thank them for doing so much for us," said Sheila Brown, who hosted eight recruits in her North Wildwood house. 

During the approximately eight hours the service men and women spend away from the base, they can eat as much as they want, unwind and call home.

"It let's them just kind of sit back and relax for a minute, which is not something we typically let them do at the Training Center in Cape May," said Capt. Todd Prestidge.

The American Red Cross Southern Shore Chapter began Operation Fireside in 1981. The organization solicits and tracks volunteers and host families, while the Training Center coordinates matchups between recruits and families. 

"Even after the holidays," said Operation Fireside Coordinator Donna Croskey, "Many of the host families attend the recruits' graduation ceremony and stay in touch long after boot camp." 

And the recruits appreciate the holiday respite.

Coast Guard Recruit Chris Villalobos said, "It's definitely cheered me up."

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