NORTH WILDWOOD — Families in southern New Jersey opened their homes on Thanksgiving Day to dozens of U.S. Coast Guard recruits from the Training Center Cape May.

Most recruits, including Jonathon Butler, of Palm Beach, Fla., and Conner Chavez, of Houston, Texas, are away from home for the first time in their lives as they finish the equivalent of boot camp at the nation’s only training center for U.S. Coast Guard enlisted recruits.

But thanks to Michael and Christine Gain, of North Wildwood, the two men did not have to spend the holiday alone.

“When we heard about Operation Fireside, we said, ‘We have to do this,’” Christine Gain said.

Her family has a long tradition of U.S. Navy service. Her son Michael, 14, wants to enlist in the U.S. Marines when he graduates from high school.

Butler said he spent the morning thinking about his family celebrating the holiday at his grandmother’s house in Atlanta. She would make her macaroni casserole and pumpkin pie, his favorite.

The family would sit around together watching football on TV and joking around.

Chavez said Thanksgiving gives both sides of his mixed-ethnicity family a rare opportunity to share a meal. There would be Thanksgiving favorites such as his grandmother’s ham — his favorite — along with Mexican foods such as enchiladas.

“It would be hard if we didn’t have such a welcoming family to take care of us,” he said.

The recruits are completing week six of their nine-week training.

“It’s been rough,” Butler said. “Some mornings I wake up and wonder if I can do it again.”

The recruits were looking forward to enjoying their first desserts since starting their training. Dessert is something Coast Guard recruits have to earn collectively as a company, Butler said.

“We’re not quite there,” he said. “I think we got lucky today. This is a great family.”

The Gains planned to play some soccer on the beach before sitting down to a home-cooked turkey and a night of football on TV.

Operation Fireside is a longstanding partnership between the Coast Guard and the community, spokesman Donnie Brzuska said. It’s one way the community shows its gratitude to a search-and-rescue agency on which Cape May and its recreational and commercial fishing industries are so dependent.

“Operation Fireside is a wonderful opportunity for the recruits to take a break from their rigorous training schedule and spend the day decompressing and relaxing,” Brzuska said. “Families in South Jersey are very generous. They continue to volunteer their homes year after year. It speaks volumes for how patriotic and caring they are.”

Contact Michael Miller:

609-272-7217