Operation Open Arms has provided Air Force Master Sgt. Lisa Weekley with a special Sanibel vacation.
A couple weeks ago, North Fort Myers resident Sandy Anderson contacted Capt. John "Giddyup" Bunch, a local fishing guide and the founder of Operation Open Arms.
Operation Open Arms, which began in 2005, offers Southwest Florida businesses, associations and individuals an opportunity to provide a variety of services - vacations, weddings and everything in between - to United States service personnel on leave from an overseas deployment.
"There was an article that caught my eye about Operation Open Arms doing a wedding on Sanibel," Anderson said. "I went to the website to see what they were about, who they were and what was available and I emailed Capt. Bunch about my daughter Lisa coming home from the desert and he immediately suggested all of these things that we could do."
Weekley, who officially went on leave Aug. 3, immediately made a phone call to Bunch.
"Within 10 hours of that phone call, he'd thrown everything together for us. He asked me what I wanted to do and I told him that I just wanted to see dolphins. He said, 'That's all it will take to make you happy?' and I told him that's all I wanted," Weekley said. She arrived in Southwest Florida on Aug. 6.
"I went from combat boots to flip flops in a matter of 48 hours."
Weekley, a single mom with a military career spanning more than 17 years, was overjoyed with the prospect of spending time with her mother and daughter, Emily Jensen, in one of her favorite places - Sanibel.
Weekley and her family checked into the Sundial Resort and wasted no time hitting the beach. But the real fun came when Bunch invited them to cruise through Pine Island Sound.
"We saw dolphins and fish and we were lucky enough to see a water spout. It was amazing," Weekley said.
The women were also invited to the Miracle's baseball game in Fort Myers where Jensen was given the honor of throwing out the first pitch.
"Captain Bunch arranged everything. All we had to do was call him and tell him what days we were available - he did everything else," Weekley said.
Weekley serves with the 126 air refueling league.
"We're a stratotanker unit, and basically we're a big gas station in the sky - we refuel everything from cargo jets to bombers, fighters and anything that the Navy has flying up there," Weekley said. "They can't do their mission without us doing our mission."
And Bunch can't do his mission without people like Weekley.
"Her job is highly technical and she doesn't really talk about it too much, but what an amazing challenge she's had as a single mom - and her daughter is so centered and just so cool," Bunch said.
After their stay on Sanibel, Weekley and Jensen returned home to Scott
Air Force Base in Illinois, where Jensen, 13, is getting ready to start the ninth grade - a milestone that Weekley is grateful to be home for.
"When you're deployed, it's just as hard on your friends and family as it is on you. I'm glad I'll be able to relax for awhile."
Weekley said her experience with Operation Open Arms was incredible, and she was happy to be able to share it with her mother and daughter.
"It's just phenomenal - especially because it's all volunteers running the program and they don't want anything in return. To me, it feels self-serving to take all that gratitude from him," Weekley said.
But according to Bunch, what Weekley does is thanks enough.
"In the past five years, my life has been absolutely filled with joy because of the joy I've brought to others through this program. It's the same with all of our sponsors. Operation Open Arms is a collection of people who really understand what it's like to bring joy to others and I think that's really what the organization is all about," Bunch said.
News of the success of Operation Open Arms traveled all the way to Maryland, where members of the Easton Rotary Club are preparing to start another branch of the organization.
"By Oct.1, at the latest, Operation Open Arms in Maryland will be fully operational. But we are still challenged by a lack of donations here in southwest Florida," Bunch said, noting that the program depends entirely on the generosity of local business owners and residents.
Weekley plans to retire to Fort Myers in three years - but until then, as she told Bunch just before her vacation came to an end, she plans to spread the word about the wonderful program that gave her the opportunity to reconnect with her mother and daughter.
For more information about Operation Open Arms, visit the organization's website at www.OperationOpenArms.com.