Operation SEAs the Day prepares for Warrior Beach Week

Although it may be hard to believe, this September, Operation SEAs the Day will be welcoming its fourth installment of warrior families to Bethany Beach.

The mission of Operation SEAs the Day is “to organize and facilitate a beach week event for our wounded soldiers and their families as a means of showing our appreciation for their service and sacrifice. It is our hope that such a community-based gesture of support will be comforting and help ease their transition back into civilian life.”

Warrior Beach Week 2016 will run Sept. 6-11 and give 25 wounded veterans and their families the opportunity to enjoy a beach vacation.

“This is a program that is locally founded by Bethany Beach people and implemented as a local community program,” said Annette Reeping, who serves on the organization’s board. “We found the program to be pretty successful, running the way it was.”

When SEAs first began hosting families in 2013, 25 “warrior” families attended.

“We had learned in Year 1 that it takes the families, and particularly the veteran — the wounded soldier — some time to relax,” said Reeping. “They’re not used to being on vacation. They’re not used to being in a community that embraces them wherever they go, and it took them quite a while.

“So we thought we would bring back five people from the year before who seemed to be very proactive and positive and engaging, to then each take five families and talk to them about their experiences and share with them, because they like to talk to each other. The wounded families understand each other.”

In 2014, 30 new families attended, along with five alumni families. In 2015, 25 new families came to Bethany Beach, along with five alumni families.

“So far, the community has impacted 500 people, of these veteran families. With the 2016 plans, we’ll probably end up with 650 people. So the community is really making an impact.”

When the warrior families — also known as “Very Important Families” (VIFs) arrive, they will attend a welcome reception, where they will meet their host family, and later be taken to their host home for the week.

At the homes, each family receives a large welcome tote bag — sometimes two — packed with goodies for the week.

“It’s a bit of everything. It’s beach towels and books, toys for the children — clay and crayons and sand buckets — things like that. They’re tailored to each family,” Reeping explained, adding that the families are also welcomed with a stocked refrigerator, courtesy of Giant.

Reeping said there are plenty of recreational activities, such as golfing at Bear Trap Dunes, available to the VIFs, and this year they may introduce tennis at Sea Colony.

“Then, during the week, they participate in things that people on vacation would participate in. They have boating available to them, fishing available, therapeutic horseback riding, kayaking — the things that we all take for granted.

“Many of these families have never been on vacation before. Some have never seen water — the ocean. But they also don’t have to participate in some of those things. They can just sit on the beach and relax, and just enjoy themselves as a family. We will have a spa day again for the ladies.”

On Friday, Sept. 9, the VIFs will travel from Bethany Beach to the Freeman Stage at Bayside to enjoy a night of music provided by Bruce in the USA. Community members are again being encouraged to line the streets during the “A Hero’s Welcome” motorcade, as the families travel to the show.

Their route will be littered with posters created in previous years, as well as this year, welcoming the families to Bethany. As part of SEAs’ Poster Cal program, families can decorate welcome posters at a table across from the Bethany Beach Farmers’ Market from mid-June to the end of July.

Community members interested in attending the musical performance along with the VIFs may do so by purchasing tickets from FreemanStage.org. Tickets cost $25, and the show begins at 7 p.m.

For the first time, this year, two alumni families will be serving on the operating committee in planning this year’s Warrior Beach Week.

“We’ve found that having their eyes on what we do is extremely important. We look at things that we think are very positive but maybe bring back memories to them that aren’t. So they’re able to tell us that,” said Reeping, adding that one spouse conducted survey last year, which they’re hoping to use to improve things.

Families have yet to be selected for this year, but the organization is working closely with the Wounded Warrior Project, Coalition to Salute American Heroes and Team Red, White & Blue to qualify families.

“We need to work with them to qualify the families. They have to screen them. We do have an application form, if you will, that we give to them. We also have someone on our board who has contacts at Walter Reed [Army Hospital],” said Reeping. “We’ve had people from California, Washington state, New Mexico, Texas. The majority of them are up and down the East Coast.”

Although SEAs is just gearing up for September’s Warrior Beach Week, Reeping said they will begin seeking volunteers in mid-July.

“We do encourage people to keep in touch, go to the website, sign up for the newsletter which comes out monthly over the summer.”

Those who wish to support the organization may also purchase SEAs merchandise at the Bethany Beach Farmers’ Market, the Ocean View WSFS Bank branch, the Sea Colony Beach Show and Bethany Fine Arts Gallery.

“The sale of the merchandise goes back to the families — primarily provide them with a free week here in Bethany.”

Reeping said that if individuals wish to support the 501(c)3 nonprofit monetarily, they may do so by visiting their website.

“All donations made to Operation SEAs the Day are tax-deductible,” she said, with 95 percent being spent directly on the warrior families. “There are no salaries or other compensation for work paid to any board member, officer or committee member. All fundraising is done at no cost by local, unpaid volunteers.”

Reeping said it is always amazing to see the support the community shows for the warriors and their families.

“We’ve recently had some people who have been involved as hosts and such, who are also military individuals who have expressed to us that they cannot even put into words how proud they are of this community and the businesses here in supporting the veterans,” she said.

“The community continues to embrace the opportunity to recognize these families. And the families get so much out of it. The Bethany Beach community makes them feel valued for their service.”

For more information about Operation SEAs the Day, to donate or find out more about how to get involved, visit www.operationseastheday.org.