CAPE May County is special for plenty of reasons – it’s the southernmost county in New Jersey, home to both America’s oldest seaside resort (Cape May) and the unofficial lima bean capital of the world (West Cape May), and even namesake to the song, “On the Way to Cape May.” We’ve got beaches and boardwalks and plenty to make our little county shine.
But it’s our considerable relationship with the United States Coast Guard that has earned us the unique distinction of being a Coast Guard Community.
“There are only 29 cities or communities that have been recognized for the distinction,” said Chief Warrant Officer (CWO) Timothy Tamargo, public affairs officer at the U.S. Coast Guard Training Center Cape May, of the limited number of Coast Guard Communities in the country.
In many ways, it feels like Cape May County has always been a United States Coast Guard (USCG) community. After all, the Coast Guard has been operating in Cape May County, in some capacity, for almost 100 years. According to the USCG website,
the U.S. Navy established a “section base” in Cape May in 1917. Just seven years later, in 1924, the Coast Guard occupied the base and established air facilities. In 1946, the Navy relinquished the base to the Coast Guard.
And while Cape May is home to the fifth largest base in the USCG, perhaps its biggest distinction is that the base serves as the USCG Training Center.
“Our base here at Training Center Cape May is the recruit training center side for the Coast Guard – it’s the only one that the Coast Guard has. Eighty percent of the workforce comes through the gates of Cape May. That’s the enlisted side,” said Timothy. “The other 20 percent is the officer career path, which would go through the Coast Guard Academy up in New London, Connecticut.”
And while the Coast Guard has been in the County for quite a long time, and “consolidated all recruit training functions to Cape May in 1982” according to the USCG website, it was only in 2015 that Cape May County received its official Coast Guard Community designation. And it’s a pretty big deal.
“This isn’t a program that the Coast Guard goes out and solicits. The county, or the city, looks and deems it a noble venture to pursue and they put the package together,” says Tamargo, of the extensive application process. “You can be looking at a multi-year process. It’s really comprehensive… the process goes all the way up for approval from the Commandant of the US Coast Guard and then to Congress.”
The distinction means that Cape May County has been officially recognized as having extended special efforts to the Coast Guard family and their dependents, doing our best to make them feel at home in our area and contributing to their morale and ability to serve. The Coast Guard, in turn, protects our shores and waterways, and contributes as valuable members of our community.
“It shows you the community itself values the service,” says Timothy. “It’s more of a personal connection. It just shows you that we’re an integrated part of the community. Our families live and work in the community. Our folks, their kids are going to the schools or people are going to church. Maybe they’re on your pick-up softball team. The whole point with the Coast Guard is we try to be part of the community which we serve.”
To help facilitate that connection, the Cape May County Coast Guard Community Foundation was founded in 2015 with the mission “to nurture the relationship between Coast Guard members and their families and the people of Cape May County,” according to the foundation website.
“All enlisted members go through basic training in Cape May. That’s like 5,000 people per year,” says Marla Brown, executive director of the Cape May County Coast Guard Community Foundation. “And there is a huge community of people working here, about 500, that work and train on the base. They are stationed here for three years typically, and they live amongst us in Cape May County.”
The foundation fosters connection through a variety of programs as well as active engagement between the Coast Guard and the local community. While those initiatives can be large – think the Coast Guard Community Festival, the Southern New Jersey Coast Guard Ball, and the Always Ready 5K– they’re just as likely to be small but mighty actions that make a meaningful and lasting impression, like the Community Activity program, in which reimbursements are distributed for community activities for active duty households; the Backpack Brigade, where backpacks full of school supplies are distributed to Coast Guard families with school age kids; or the Send Off Program.
“Basically, you have all these kids leaving their families going to boot camp in Cape May for eight weeks, and during Covid, they were graduating and families weren’t allowed to see their husbands or kids graduate after being gone so long,” said Marla of the Coast Guard graduations, which happen 42 Fridays per year. “So we set up the Send Off Program, where families could go through our website and sign up and we would make a personal eraser board sign so that their graduate would know that mom or dad or whoever was proud of them.”
As part of the program, volunteers would stand with their signs congratulating graduates at the corner of Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh avenues, right at the corner of the base — and right where the bus would drive the recruits for graduation.
“We thought we might lose the Send Off Program as Covid requirements eased up, but residents of the county still come to the corner every Friday. One guy drives all the way down from Hammonton,” said Marla. “It’s the greatest thing and it’s what makes my job so special.”
Photos by Katelin Keane
Find this and more in the August issue of Ocean City Magazine