Anyone driving by the South Coastal Library late in the afternoon on Labor Day might have thought there was a tailgate party going on.
All kinds of vehicles were there, loaded with food; children played cornhole; people laughed and hugged. There may have been a beverage or two.
This was no tailgate party, though. The food was being dispersed to area beach homes, which within less than 24 hours would host 35 “Very Important Families,” of VIFs, chosen by Operation SEAs the Day to experience a vacation in Bethany Beach during Warrior Family Beach Week, Sept. 3 to Sept. 8.
Gathering in the library meeting room, dozens of volunteers discussed last-minute details of the week — the seventh since a small band of local residents decided to provide wounded military veterans and their families with a well-deserved break.
Some of the volunteers are local “host families” who act during the week as liaisons between the homeowners who have donated the use of their beach properties for the week, as well as being the Warrior Families’ “go-to” people for any questions they might have about restaurants or activities offered during the week.
Others are “alumni,” families of wounded veterans who are returning to Bethany Beach after themselves experiencing Warrior Family Beach Week, and fully understanding the emotions the veterans and their families will experience as they decompress from their often-stressful post-deployment lives.
Among the alumni this year are Greg and Amber Gerard, whose wedding took place during Warrior Beach Week last year. Planned in just three days by friends — with everything from Amber’s dress and wedding photographs to cake and refreshments, donated by local businesses — the wedding was originally planned to take place on the beach but was moved inside at Sea Colony due to a rainstorm.
This past Monday, the assembled volunteers heard a run-down of activities planned for the week — ranging from horseback riding to deep-sea fishing, from a spa day for the women in the group to a special screening of the movie “Frozen” for the children.
The VIFs will also have plenty of opportunities to relax and get to know each other during cookouts and bonfires. Although there are more than enough activities to keep the families busy all week, organizers emphasize that they should “do as little or as much as you would like — this is YOUR week!” as their printed event guide proclaims.
Since the week is also meant to be a time when the Very Important Families can meet other families with similar experiences, the caregiver role of the spouses is at the forefront of planning for the week. At a pair of “caregiver coffees,” the spouses can share their experiences and receive support from each other.
All of the activities are free of charge for the families, donated by local businesses and individuals. In addition, each family receives gift certificates to area restaurants, where they can dine with their families during the week.
The bags lining the walls of the library meeting room contained staples, such as bread, paper towels, fruit and snacks, while accompanying cold storage containers held perishables for each family.
With Hurricane Dorian’s path still uncertain, but with the possibility of it impacting weather along the coast later in the week, volunteers were instructed that planned activities could change and that families should be encouraged to bring foul-weather gear.
The families arrived Tuesday, Sept. 3, with their first taste of Warrior Family Beach Week being a welcome luncheon at the Mason-Dixon VFW Post 7234 in Ocean View. As they reached the end of Cedar Neck Road, after traveling from as far away as Colorado, they were greeted by handmade signs lining both sides of the road, welcoming them and thanking them for their service and sacrifice.
The signs were made at the South Coastal Library throughout the summer at “Poster Pal” events, by local residents and visitors alike. Each poster was signed by the artist and labeled with their hometowns, from Dagsboro and Dover to Philadelphia and Pasadena, Md.
A highlight of Warrior Family Beach Week each year is the procession of the families from Bethany Beach to a special welcome concert and dinner at the Freeman Stage west of Fenwick Island. The posters that greeted them earlier in the week will be seen again, lining their route that night, and community members are again being encouraged to bring American flags and greet them along the way as they travel in three buses from Sea Colony, south on Route 1 to Route 54, ending at the Bayside community.
“It’s very moving on the buses, when you’re coming down,” said organizer Tom Renda of the streets lined with signs and flag-waving supporters. The parade departs from Sea Colony at 4:45 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 6, and arrives at Bayside around 5 p.m.
The community is also being invited to join the Warrior families for that Bruce in the USA Bruce Springsteen tribute show at the Freeman Stage on Friday, Sept. 6, at 7 p.m. Tickets for the show are free for the Warrior families and cost $25 for all others. For more information on tickets, go to www.freemanstage.org.
“The concert will go on, unless there is lightning and thunder,” said Colleen Kellner of the OStD board of directors as she updated the group on events and other important information regarding the week, which is chock full of opportunities for the families to enjoy the beach area.
On Saturday, the public is being invited to join the Warrior families at the Cripple Creek Country Club in Dagsboro for a classic car show from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Admission to the car show is free for everyone.
Throughout the week, as the veterans and their VIFs will be enjoying what coastal Delaware has to offer, the community is also being encouraged to thank them for their service. They will be easily recognizable by their dogtag-style ID badges bearing the Operation SEAs the Day logo.
By Kerin Magill