NAVAL STATION GREAT LAKES, Ill. (NNS) -- Nearly 2,000 recruits from the Navy's only boot camp, Recruit Training Command (RTC), participated in the annual Adopt-A-Sailor program over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
The program has been around since World War I and affords recruits an opportunity to either spend a day on Thanksgiving or Christmas off base with their families or with a local civic organization. Eligible recruits include those who are scheduled to graduate the week following the holiday.
Recruits went in groups of 25 to 200 to organizations such as local churches, VFW and American Legion Posts in the area. This year, more than 950 recruits enjoyed Thanksgiving with an organization while approximately 870 spent Christmas with the local community.
Because graduation was in five days following Christmas, Seaman Recruit Jason Venrick's mother couldn't afford the back-to-back trips from California.
"We would see him just for that day and then would have to turn around and go back home and then come back for graduation," said Christine Carr over the phone.
Carr was grateful to the organization who hosted her recruit.
"When I heard he was going with a group, I thought, 'That is so right. Good for them!' It really means a lot to me because I couldn't be there. That they opened their arms to our Sailors — and especially with today's economy — how generous is that? For the communities to go to that extent and be that warm and caring is tremendous."
Capt. John W. Peterson, commanding officer, RTC, said the recruits are far from home, "far from kith and kin", going through a very demanding training regimen as they begin their Navy careers.
"Adopt-A-Sailor shows our nation's newest Sailors a strong vote of support from our local community through the efforts of great volunteers from our local civic and patriotic organizations," Peterson said. "This piece of 'home at the holidays' is very reassuring to our young men and women as they leave their own homes and step up to serve in our Navy."
For the past 12 years, Mount Sinai Institutional Baptist Church in North Chicago has hosted recruits for Christmas.
"We look forward to this event every year," said Lita Lindsey, one of the group's organizers. "It is a blessing to be able to bless someone else during the holidays. We feel that since they have to be away from home, they should be able to enjoy a great meal and have some fun. We have received so many thank-you letters from the parents of the Sailors that we have welcomed into our church thanking us for taking the time to make sure that their son/daughter had a great Christmas."
When the recruits first arrive at Mount Sinai, there is a continental breakfast waiting for them. Some of the day's activities include sing-a-longs as well as card playing, board games and dominoes. Phone lines also are set up so the recruits may call their families.
"I feel that all of our volunteers grow stronger in their faith by giving the gift of time," Rev. Jerry Williamson, from Mt. Sinai, said. "Everyone seems to get a great deal of joy out of the interaction with the recruits. It gives them the opportunity to show love to their adopted sons and daughters, even if only for a few hours."
Seeing the appreciation of the recruits also fuels the church's desire to continue with the program each year.
"We watch the recruits go from skepticism to anticipation of a good time to becoming emotionally drained after talking on the phone to loved ones back home," Williamson said.
RTC's commanding officer recognized the importance of the volunteers who make Adopt-A-Sailor so successful each year.
"Our local civic organizations are made up of volunteers from all walks of life but common to each is a sense of service to their fellow citizens, especially our young (recruits)," Peterson said. "Some are veterans, while some just want to help. They each benefit from sharing hospitality at this special time of the year."
Peterson also said the volunteers get an opportunity to "experience firsthand the kind of young men and women who are stepping (up) to serve their country in our Navy today. Spending time with our newest Sailors, sensing their full potential and seeing their promise is very reassuring especially as we start a new year! We at the Navy's Recruit Training Command get to see this promise every day. It's great to be able to share this in the form of our recruits with the community, and we are most thankful for their support."
Since World War I, the main goal of the Adopt-A-Sailor program at Naval Station Great Lakes is to bring the Navy and the community together.
The McHenry Masonic Lodge No. 158 in McHenry, Ill., is in its sixth year of participation with Adopt-A-Sailor and is strongly supported by area residents and businesses.
"This is an awesome experience not only for the recruit but for the membership of the lodge," said Roland Wood, a long-time Mason. "We believe it bonds the people in the lodge because we all get together for a common purpose to help Sailors."
"This gives us something to plan for, something to work toward. It's not normal boring business. The entire community gets involved with donations and food."
According to Wood, even the McHenry Downtown Theatre gets involved by offering free admission, popcorn and a beverage to any service member in uniform.
Hosting the recruits has a special meaning to many of the lodge members who are veterans, with the majority of them having served in the Navy, including Wood who was stationed at Great Lakes for training.
"This brings backs a lot of memories for us," Wood said. "This puts value into being a Mason. Every year this is a great experience and the most social event of the year for our lodge."
At the lodge recruits took advantage of a bank of five phones donated by AT&T that allowed them to make free, unlimited calls to anywhere in the country.
The lodge offered to take photos of the recruits and then mail them to the recruits' families at no charge.
In addition to being able to watch movies and make phone calls, the Masons also set up a recreation area for the recruits to play games and cards, or to sit and talk.
While the recruits may be grateful to the organizations for the opportunity to be away from boot camp for a day, Wood was especially grateful this year for the Adopt-A-Sailor program.
"This means a lot to me. I couldn't be with my son this year. He's on his second tour in Iraq and that was on my mind all day," Wood said.
For more news from Naval Service Training Command, visit www.navy.mil/local/greatlakes/.