Steve Schnitzler is not your average Joe. For seven years, the CEO of Port City Java, a Wilmington, North Carolina-based coffeehouse, has been bringing together Southern hospitality, patriotism, and a bountiful feast in the form of a program known as Marines for Thanksgiving.
Last month, on Thanksgiving morning, three busloads of Marines—approximately 150 of them—from Camp Lejeune, Jacksonville, N.C., ar-rived at local Wilmington high schools in order to pair up with more than 70 host families. The Ma-rines got to go home with them, spend the day, and share a home-cooked meal. “It’s about saying thank you to folks who are doing a remarkably difficult and dangerous job that is necessary for our country,” Schnitzler said. “It’s a very human thing. We expect a lot things of these people. We don’t do enough for them."
Marines for Thanksgiving has become a Thanksgiving tradition for Deborah Conard’s family, who have hosted Marines in their home several times. Conard said they always start the day by taking their Ma-rines for a truck ride out on the beach—for some, it’s the first time they have seen the ocean—and send them back to base with goodie bags. In between, there is football, canoeing, cornhole, and, of course, a home-cooked Thanksgiving meal.
“Each time we get them, we are amazed at how devoted they are, and how young they are. When you look at their faces and realize the responsibil-ity they have—it’s humbling. Our family thinks it’s one small thing we can do for them in return for what they do for us,” Conard said. “And it always touches me how thankful they are.”
Since Schnitzler started this program it has more than tripled in size as local families are eager to open their homes to members of the military, many of whom are “baby boots”—just out of ba-sic training and spending their first holiday away from home. “For some families, it has become a tradition,” Schnitzler said. “We all pay lip service to supporting troops. It can become rote. You want to thank them? Take them into your house, feed them dinner, look them in the eye, shake hands, and say thank you.”
Leslie McDowell and her husband, retired Army Lt. Col. Terry, a 26-year veteran, have three children who are all currently serving in the armed forces. They know better than most the unique and important opportunity they have in hosting a “Marinesgiving” for young military members.
“This amazing program allows us to not only share our home, food, and love with these brave young men and women,” said McDowell. “We can also share stories and maybe make memories in this beautiful city that will last a lifetime. Their service has just begun. This is a precious opportunity to say thank you to them even though none of them will feel as though they’ve done anything thank-you worthy at this stage in their military career. They did the first and most important thing—they volunteered to die to uphold our freedom.”
Schnitzler said navigating the red tape in the military to figure out the logistics of find-ing, bussing, and returning three busloads of Marines to base has been a challenge but worth it. And the 49-year-old CEO doesn’t just run the program off-site—he’s boots on the ground. When Marines step off their charter bus into the chilly North Carolina sunshine, they hear Schnitzler’s voice booming through a bullhorn, directing them to their host fami-lies. “This project is me,” Schnitzler said. “It feels good. Families get a lot out of it. Marines get a lot out of it. I’m at my best when I’m helping others.”
A self-described “poor kid” from Montville, New Jersey, a tony New York City bedroom community, Schnitzler said he may not have gone to college but he knows enough about business to know it’s not all about profit. For him, it’s about people and purpose. “We have a responsibility to more than making money,” he said. “We have a responsibility to our com-munity. Our purpose is to serve.”