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Operation Open Arms fundraiser comes to the Cape

August 25, 2014
Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

A long procession of Mini-Coopers, almost 200 of them, made its way over the Midpoint Bridge, turned into the Eco Preserve and stopped at the War Memorial Park.

They came from Fort Myers on Saturday to be part of a ceremony that kicked off a fundraising effort for a local charitable organization devoted to providing aid for soldiers who otherwise couldn't afford those services.

Local dignitaries and hundreds of people came to Eco Park to help Operation Open Arms continue to provide services such as fishing trips, vacations and weddings to service members at no cost to them, thanks to founder Capt. John "Giddyup" Bunch's generosity and his army of sponsors who have donated their services.

Operation Open Arms came into existence nearly a decade ago and, despite some intermittent financial difficulties, has survived to help provided by local service people.

"We've been on the verge of going out of business three times, but somehow we'll get a donation, and we leverage the donation to get all the things we provide," Bunch said.

It has provided 2,949 troops one-week paid vacations valued at $3,500 a pop. It also will sponsor its 100th wedding this coming weekend, with each one valued at $18,000.

This despite collecting cash donations of just $125,000, Bunch said, adding his organization has no payroll or religious or political affiliation.

"We have bargained it into $11.4 million in benefits. We would pay a fishing captain $100 for gas and he would rent a $600 charter that a U.S. serviceman can't afford," Bunch said.

Bunch said he has had to go into the community and ask the 227 sponsors in the Operation Open Arms network if they would "pay the proper respect to those who dodged bullets for a living and risked their lives."

The goal was the raise $50,000 to keep the foundation providing these services for five more years, as it costs roughly $10,000 annually to keep the organiation going.

Among those who spoke at the ceremony were Cape Coral Mayor Marni Sawicki, State Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto and Lee County Commissioner Brian Hamman.

"It's great to see the community come together and recognize our servicemen and women, and to see the parade of Mini-Coopers with those who might not otherwise come to this event was great," Benacquisto said.

The Guns & Hoses Pipe and Drum Corp performed, 10-year-old Sarah Hardwick sang the national anthem, and a helicopter did a flyover.

After the ceremony, the cars went back over the bridge for a fund-raising event at the Tilted Kilt restaurant in Fort Myers. Other Operation Open Arms sponsors also held fund-raising events.

As for the Mini-Coopers - and for that matter, the event - it was the idea of Ken Wetzel, general manager of the local dealership in Fort Myers, who puts together several rallies with those who have bought cars from him.

"Somebody brought up the idea of doing something for our military. We found Operation Open Arms was local and thought it was great organization, and decided to arrange this event," Wetzel said.



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