From March to October, the community of St. James hosts military families every other weekend, about 50 each season. It’s a way of saying thank you. It’s also maybe a way of making up for the treatment Vietnam veterans received when they returned home.
“During the time of the surge in Iraq nine years ago, a lot of people in the community were talking about what they could do for the guys and girls deployed from Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune,” said Kim Sniffin, a volunteer for the organization which would emerge from that discussion. The community has a high percentage of veterans as well as the demographic that saw the Vietnam War up close, he said.
With the germ of an idea, a resident who was a retired commander of the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg made some contacts, and Operation at Ease began.
Not only did the neighborhood rally around the idea, so did the St. James development team, and the surrounding towns and merchants chipped in.
Nine years later, OAE has hosted about 450 families, providing lodging, food, recreation, and much-needed family time to military families.
Families stay in the condos on site at St. James, have use of the community’s beach club, and are treated to golf, boat rides, fishing trips and more. It takes dozens of volunteers, and there’s no shortage.
Judy Steffens is a monthly coordinator, one of seven who organize the visitors and volunteers for each month. “I was overwhelmed, as a coordinator, by the number of people who volunteer,” she said.
She said each family is assigned a greeter who meets the family upon arrival and gets them settled into their condo. The greeter picks up prepared food, snacks and groceries from volunteers and delivers those to the family. They also provide coupons from local businesses and give the family a list of local activities from which they can choose.
Because they all arrive by their own car (OAE provides gas money) they can easily travel around town to see the sites, eat out and go to the beach. Families come in mid-afternoon on Friday and check out Sunday morning. They’re welcome to use the beach club after checkout and can shower there before the drive home.
Each family is also assigned a volunteer photographer who documents the visit, at the family’s convenience, and sends them home with a CD of family photos.
Service members and their families self-nominate through the OAE website, which lists the qualifications.
Applications are accepted beginning in January. A board member contacts the person listed as the service member’s supervisor. Each applicant is then contacted. “We try to get double the number of vetted applications because training and deployment changes, and the family may not be here,” Sniffin said. “We prioritize them among ourselves. We try to give the first cut to the people who have spent the most time away from their families, who’ve deployed the most. Some of them have six or seven deployments. We try to invite as many of the junior personnel who are less likely to afford this on their own,” Sniffin said. “And it has to be a family.”
Invitations are extended through their committee’s guest relations director who explains what the family can expect, finds a match in their schedule, and schedules the amenities the family will enjoy, Sniffin explained.
“We originally thought we’d like to have them here for five days,” said volunteer Don Hill. “It soon became obvious that most of the people only had two or three days at most that they could get off because of training or other things.” Even with the three-day schedule, he said the condos must be booked well in advance to secure the reservation. “We’ve sometimes ended up having individual residents to host them in their homes, but that’s not an ideal situation,” Hill said. “We’re trying to get them family time together.”
Each family weekend costs OAE about $500. The entire program is funded by a St. James-wide bow sale and the contributions of residents and businesses.
Based on comments from participating families and from volunteers, the program has been a huge success. The annual volunteer meeting is always lively, and comments from the families are positive. “Their notes make everything worthwhile,” Hill said. “They let you know how much it means to them.”