Ryan Charrier sipped water under the shade of a pop-up tent at Orange Beach City Hall and waited for an expected influx of military families coming in for a beach vacation.
“This is the fun day,” Charrier said. “The hard work is over now. This is the fun part. We get to see all those smiling faces.”
Charrier, an Air Force veteran, is the founder of Operation Reconnect, an organization that plans vacations for military personnel returning from tours of duty in combat zones. His group raises money, accepts donations and gives the servicemen and their families an entire week to reconnect at the end of a deployment.
On April 6, 37 families stopped by tents set up in the City Hall parking lot to pick up keys to accommodations given by rental management companies and individual owners.
“Most of the accommodations are donated,” Charrier said. “One of our biggest rental management partners is Meyer Vacation Rentals, but we do work with everybody else. Meyer is our number-one star.”
But it’s more than just a place to stay on the beach. There’s a goodie bag involved, with enough perks to keep the families busy during their week’s stay.
“The properties by themselves are enough for the families,” Charrier said. “But to have Flora-Bama Pontoon Boats, Sail Wild Hearts excursions, zoo passes … they all have passes to Alligator Alley, restaurant gift cards to De Soto’s and Flora-Bama Yacht Club. All of it enhances the experience beyond words for the families because they aren’t expecting any of that. They have no idea. They are walking into their condos today and all their welcome gift baskets and cards are laid out on the counters.”
Charrier’s group “reconnects” all year long, but takes on the big projects when using the Alabama Gulf Coast as the host site. In May 2018, he first hosted Fighter Wing Week by welcoming 50 servicemen and their families from the 442nd Fighter Wing returning from a tour in Afghanistan.
“It was an incredibly rewarding experience and we decided to do it again,” Charrier said. “It was the first time we did a big week. We do operate all year, but last year was the first week we brought in a large group at one time and we’re doing it again this year.”
The servicemen visiting this week are mostly from the South, but one family drove in from New Mexico for a week on the Gulf.
“Last year we did focus on one particular unit, but this year we have some from Special Forces at Eglin Air Force Base and all the way from New Mexico, with 37 servicemen and their families, so about 100 to 125 people,” Charrier said.
A second Reconnect Week is planned for Sept. 21-28, when Charrier hopes to bring in the largest group yet — 100 military families. Sign-up is available now at operationreconnect.org/reconnectweek. Business partners wishing to donate accommodations, dinners or passes to local attractions may sign up there as well.
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