Summer is a time when many families take vacations to exciting or exotic places, whether across the world or just a drive down to a shore town along one of the coasts.
But for American military personnel and their families, such a luxury is not usually an option.
Operation Jersey Shore Vacation, the idea of a high school teen, is an innovative project that seeks to change that.
Lexi Sinor was a junior in high school when, in 2009, she came up with the plan to work with her father, Randy – a real estate agent – to identify homeowners with summer homes who would be willing to donate a week-long stay to members of the armed forces to allow them the chance to partake in a luxury so infrequent for those in the military.
After Lexi moved to Utah to attend college, her sister, Amie, now 17, stepped up to the plate. And the project quickly became something Amie is passionate about.
“It is great to see them when they come in,” Amie says of the families they provide vacations for. “I have been raised to give back whenever I can … it makes me feel good.”
Now in its fifth summer, Operation Jersey Shore Vacation works closely with military leaders at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in central New Jersey and with the owners of summer homes to identify qualified military families and to secure a home for them to stay in for a week at the New Jersey shore.
Beyond just providing the space for a family to enjoy, the project also works with local vendors and community groups to provide gift cards for groceries and other necessities, as well as free meals or outings on the island.
One location, Fantasy Island, provides the families with free access to its rides, games, and other attractions as a special honor to service members.
“Being down here and having this chance to be together on a vacation – I think that is just real quality time for everybody to reconnect,” says Mr. Sinor, who added that he has no trouble finding support from local businesses or homeowners to make such vacations a reality.
One impetus for starting the program came when his oldest daughter was traveling in Italy between Florence and Rome and an earthquake struck, Sinor says. It took some 16 hours for the family to find out that she was safe. That experience, he says, resonated with the family as an example of what the families of US military personnel go through on a regular basis.
“We appreciate so much what the individual military people and their families sacrifice for us,” he says.
Seeing the families with children enjoying the rides and games along the coastline is a memory he won’t soon forget, Sinor says.
“It is special to them,” he says, noting the impact such experiences can have on young children. “That’s a memory they might not otherwise have had.”
While running the program takes a lot of time and dedication from an already busy high school senior, Amie says it has become something she is passionate about. The teen still visits each family during its stay – to date, more than 25 families in the five summers the program has been in operation.
“It does take a lot of time, but it is totally worth it,” she says. “When you see the families … and how happy they are to be together, it is just priceless.”
The Sinor family now is working to obtain 501c3 nonprofit status for their program.
This summer, the shore also may be visited by a family or two who have been displaced by the tornadoes in Oklahoma. At the time of a recent interview, Amie was working to identify times for a pair of Oklahoma families to travel to the New Jersey shore to get some much-needed rest and relaxation.
Heather Lamb fondly recalls the vacation her family was able to take through the project last summer, when they spent a week on New Jersey's Long Beach Island. She enjoyed the week-long reprieve along with her husband, Benjamin, and two of their three sons – Connor and Keegan.
“It was the first vacation ever for the family,” Mrs. Lamb says. “Due to my husband’s deployment schedules, we never got time to actually plan everything. You cannot make plans – it is very difficult.”
She said that every detail of the week – from the honors they received at local businesses to the memories they created together – was priceless.
“It was the best week we had,” she says. “It was so relaxing. We were so humbled and overwhelmed with the generosity.”
• For more information on Operation Jersey Shore Vacation, to apply for a vacation, or to support the effort, visit www.ojsv.org.