CAPE MAY — Coast Guard Training Center Cape May, a sprawling base at the state’s southernmost tip, hummed along as it usually does — 1,000 people working in concert to monitor and guard the coast — in the midst of a nearly three-week government shutdown.
With a resolution to the ongoing partial government shutdown proving elusive, Coast Guard enlistees, contractors and civilian employees — who, unlike other military branches, are under the purview of the Department of Homeland Security, and not fully funded — are preparing to miss their first paycheck next week.
And the community around them is rallying to cushion the blow.
A few “Coasties” stood by as Jessica Manfre made her way through the base’s makeshift food pantry Thursday morning, her 15-month-old daughter Raegan in arm, making sure none of their families go hungry.
The enlisted members couldn’t speak with media, per Coast Guard rules. But Manfre’s husband has been in the Coast Guard for 18 years and she expressed enough gratitude for everyone in the room.
“I think what differentiates this, being here, is the community,” she said. “We’ve lived all over the country — Alaska even — and, not that people aren’t supportive of the Coast Guard, but here it’s a different level.”
Manfre was at the pantry as a volunteer with the Spouses Association on base, working with the Chief Petty Officers Association. Members from South Jersey VFW posts dropped off a monetary donation to the two groups Friday morning. Donation drives were launched by the American Legion in Wildwood, the Seaville Fire & Rescue Company and churches around Cape May County.
Mayor Clarence Lear, who grew up in Cape May and took office last year, stressed how integral to the county the Coast Guard is, from local employment to the influx of visitors at near-weekly graduations on the base.
“The Coast Guard is predominant,” Lear said. “It affects us, it affects our school system. We really bond with the Coast Guard family.”
The Coast Guard has been in the area since before 1900, when the proto-Coast Guard, the United States Life-Saving Service, had stations along the coastline. The Coast Guard took over the current base from the Navy in 1924, and since 1948, all entry-level training for the Coast Guard has taken place in Cape May.
Cape May was designated a Coast Guard Community in 2015, one of 20 cities in the country with the title.
“How the community has rallied together in an effort to support those families impacted by the shutdown is certainly an example of why they have earned the title Coast Guard Community,” said John Edwards, spokesman for the training center.
At First Assembly of God Church on Seashore Road, the Rev. Leo Dodd heard a Coast Guard family in his congregation was at risk of missing a paycheck and asked whether he could cover their groceries. Word spread, and others wanted to help. They connected with the on-base chaplain, and became a collection point for the pantry.
“We just love the Coast Guard and what they’re doing for our community, and we want to help them anyway we can,” Dodd said.
The pantry, though, is for all furloughed federal employees and essential employees working without a guaranteed paycheck, the Coast Guard emphasizes.
“In America, everyone lives paycheck to paycheck, so to go a week could be very hard for a family,” said Dodd’s wife, Jeannie, “and they’re there to help us and protect us, so we want to help them.”
Of 150 students at Cape May City Elementary School, two-thirds are children of Coast Guard members, said Superintendent Victoria Zelenak. Staff at the school are collecting canned food and grocery store gift cards so families can get fresh food. Letters were sent out to Coast Guard parents notifying them to fill out a form for free or reduced lunch during the shutdown, Zelenak said. And the school will host a movie night that usually takes place on base.
“It’s been a great, great relationship,” Zelenak said.
Former Coast Guard members are helping, too. Joe Reed, 74, a retired Coast Guard Reserve member, drove from Gloucester County to the training facility Thursday morning to donate money for food.
“There’re actually people who are willing to put themselves in harm’s way to save people who go out in rough weather when they shouldn’t,” Reed said. “Now, for whatever reason … the Coast Guard’s caught in the middle that they can’t feed their family. What a disgrace that is.”
This week, U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, D-2nd, introduced a bill to fund the Coast Guard during the shutdown. The bill remains in the House Appropriations Committee. And nationally, the Coast Guard has acknowledged the coming financial strain for its roughly 42,000 members. The Coast Guard had, but since removed, a tip sheet from its website outlining ways members could stay afloat while they wait for their next check: garage sales, babysitting, tutoring, etc.
Individuals have made their own efforts to ameliorate anxiety during the shutdown.
At his farm in Goshen on Thursday, artist Stan Sperlak, 58, reminisced on his father’s time as a Coast Guard officer. His parents met in Cape May while his father was in training.
“We moved around the country,” Sperlak said. “I watched my parents count pennies.”
Any political disputes about the shutdown are secondary to the fact people are sitting home from work or punching in for a withheld paycheck, Sperlak said. So he wrote a Facebook post, urging anyone affected by the shutdown to give him a call. He’s gotten calls, some anonymous, asking what help he has to offer.
If people need a tank of gas, Sperlak said, he can help. But he can also offer something immaterial for stressed-out enlistees.
“There might be somebody who has a situation where ... they need a distraction, they could use some time,” Sperlak said. “Maybe they would want to be involved in an art class. Maybe they would just like to come up and take a hike on the property.”
At the pantry Friday, Joann Ludwig-Jones browsed the donated goods, placing the food she needed into a bag. Ludwig-Jones and her husband, who has been in the Coast Guard for 12 years, have two kids. She said they have a little money put away, but it will be tough the longer the shutdown continues.
“I think it’s been great. I’m really blown away and surprised,” Ludwig-Jones said. “Instead of just food, they’re getting diapers and toilet paper and paper towels, which I think is really awesome.”
Manfre said some Coast Guard members are hesitant to ask for, or accept, help.
“It is hard for people to walk in here,” Manfre said. “But I want it to be about the fact that the community is doing this for us, and let’s let them.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.