Operation Holiday Cheer to spread Thanksgiving, Christmas spirit with free meals for troops

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

OKALOOSA ISLAND — For yet another year, Dr. Garry Banks, a Niceville family medicine specialist, developer Jay Odom, Sealand Restaurant in Fort Walton Beach, and a number of volunteers are teaming up to ensure that local active-duty military personnel who won't be able to make it home for the upcoming holidays will at least have a traditional and free holiday meal on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.

This is the third year that Banks and Odom have teamed up for Operation Holiday Cheer.

The roots of the effort, though, go back a year earlier, when Banks was moved by the tears of a patient. During the military member's visit to Banks' office, conversation turned to the holidays and a traditional Christmas dinner, and Banks learned that the service member hadn't been home for the holiday the previous two years.

Last year:Christmas dinners bring holiday cheer to local troops

From the archives:Local developer Jay Odom, Dr. Banks sponsoring free holiday dinner for troops

Banks was moved enough by that conversation to team up with Sealand Restaurant to provide both a Thanksgiving meal and a Christmas Day dinner to local military personnel who weren't able to go home or mark the holidays in any other special way.

By the next year, though, the effort to feed active-duty troops, their families, and friends had expanded to the point that Banks approached Odom and they put together a plan dubbed Operation Holiday Cheer.

These people were among the dozens of military personnel, their families and friends who couldn't make it home for the holiday last year but instead ate Christmas dinner at The Island resort on Okaloosa Island courtesy of physician Dr. Garry Banks and developer Jay Odom. Banks and Odom started Operation Holiday Cheer to provide military personnel who either were working on Thanksgiving or Christmas or couldn't make it home with a festive holiday meal.

This holiday season will mark the third year of that arrangement, under which Sealand Restaurant prepares and delivers Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day meals to active-duty military personnel who are working on those days, and The Island provides meals to active-duty military personnel, family, and friends who have time at least to have a holiday meal in a communal atmosphere.

"I really appreciate the people at The Island hotel, Sealand Restaurant, and the Jay Odom Group," Banks said Monday, noting that they "have gone out of their way to assist ... in this endeavor."

The dinners provided through Operation Holiday Cheer have been gratefully acknowledged by the military personnel who have received them, Banks said.

"The ones who've attended the dinner said it was great for camaraderie," said Banks, who added that in many cases meeting at the dinners has created lasting friendships among troops.

For the military personnel on duty on the holidays, the dinners can mean even more as they work shifts that can extend from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., according to Banks. 

"Some of them are in tears because they didn't think they would have a holiday meal," he said.

This festively dressed group was among the people who enjoyed a Christmas Day dinner at The Island courtesy of Operation Holiday Cheer.

Reservations for the upcoming holiday meals, whether served at The Island or delivered to a duty post, can be made by email at gbanks@ecmed.gccoxmail.com or by phone at 850-678-7676.

Banks is asking that people make reservations at least a week in advance of Thanksgiving Day or Christmas Day to ensure that both Sealand and The Island have ample time to have the makings of the holiday meals on hand. Meals will be served at The Island from 2 to 3:30 p.m. on both Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.

This is a sample of the fare at one of the holiday season dinners provided to military members and their families and friends who couldn't make it home for the holidays last year through Operation Holiday Cheer. The effort by physician Dr. Garry Banks and developer Jay Odom is back again this year at The Island resort on Okaloosa Island.

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This year, Banks said Operation Holiday Cheer expects to deliver as many as 300 meals to active-duty personnel working on each of the two holidays and expects to serve as many as 100 people at The Island on both holidays, meaning that as many as 800 people will have a free holiday meal across both holidays.

By comparison, the initial year of the effort fed about 130 people, according to Banks.

Operation Holiday Cheer now is funded through donations. While a September fundraising event in Destin raised a significant amount of money, donations are still welcome and can be arranged through the same email address and telephone number being used to accept reservations, Banks said. Donations will be accepted until the day before Christmas, he added.

In addition to donations, Operation Holiday Cheer is still looking for volunteers to pack and deliver holiday meals from Sealand, Banks said. Prospective volunteers can offer their services through either gbanks@ecmed.gccoxmail.com or 850- 678-7676.

This year's Thanksgiving menu includes a Caesar salad, a choice of meats comprising turkey with bread stuffing, cranberry sauce, and buttermilk biscuits and Cajun honey-glazed ham with spicy mustard, side dishes of garlic mashed potatoes, herb roasted green beans, honey-glazed heirloom carrots, and pumpkin and pecan pie for dessert.