OCEAN SPRINGS -- Kayla Ward's family always planned a huge celebration for Thanksgiving, so she thought Thursday would be tough -- the first holiday she's ever spent away from her loved ones.
The 19-year-old Orlando native could have spent it in her barracks at Keesler Air Force Base, playing cards with other service members and eating in the cafeteria.
But instead, she and 16 others boarded a bus and headed to Bobby Walker's house in Ocean Springs for a Thanksgiving Day celebration like they'd never experienced.
She learned how to eat boiled crawfish and tasted mushrooms boiled in mudbug seasoning.
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"I'm still scared to suck the juice out of the head," she said of the crawfish.
Ward even tried a Rotel cheese dip loaded with deer meat.
"I learned how to play 'corn-in-the-hole'," Ward said, while other airmen jumped on the trampoline, watched football on the big screen or danced in the backyard when "The Wobble" line dance came on.
Bobby Walker, a single father and construction worker, planned to host family and friends for the holiday in his "mancave" attached to his home, but he wanted to do something more for the community.
Collecting up singles
"I told all my friends -- I told them if they were alone, single or didn't have no place to go, instead of sitting alone by themselves or going to the bar, they can come here," he said.
Walker originally messaged a local business on Facebook to see if he could help with their Thanksgiving events benefiting military service members and police officers, but he never received a response.
He was telling a friend who worked on base about his idea, who suggested he talk to Lieutenant Barral about the Home Away From Home Program.
The program places military members who are on bases away from home with local families for the holiday. Walker was eager to help and willing to take more than one person.
And the list kept growing until it capped at 15. Then a family planning to take two for the day had to cancel at the last minute. So Bobby said to add them to his list.
"I just don't like to see anybody without," he said. "That's just me. I don't know how to explain it."
Walker and his son spent Wednesday getting ready for Thanksgiving, picking up donations and getting the yard ready for company.
Donations roll in
Vincent Burke from In The Zone donated the bus to get the Keesler people to and from Walker's home.
When Tom Reynolds from Allstate heard what Walker was planning, he asked if he would have crawfish for the airmen to try.
Walker said it would be too expensive, so Reynolds left him a $500 check to buy some sacks.
Sean Desporte gave Walker the crawfish at cost, so he was able to get more, and Walker was able to boil several batches throughout the day.
A bartender from Gil's Fish Camp made gumbo. The bar also donated ice for the dinner.
Area cocktail waitresses brought dishes and desserts. Burke donated the five turkeys and four hams Walker smoked for the Thanksgiving feast.
"Everything else is mostly just friends pulling stuff together and bringing stuff they have -- just cooking pies or dropping off turkeys. They're bringing it over here to give to these guys."
Coast Merrymaking 101
When Thanksgiving arrived, it was a party in Walker's backyard. Several of Walker's friends were on hand to help.
The airmen ate seafood, snacked on appetizers and learned how to play cornhole.
"We had to teach most of them how to peel and eat crawfish," said Marcus Wieck, an Army veteran who has known Walker for more than 15 years.
He said he was glad to be there to help Walker make sure the dinner was a success.
"I told him, 'Whatever help you'll need, I'll get you,'" he said.
Ward said she was glad for the experience.
"I like that he took us in," she said.
Cadejah Farmer, 20, of North Carolina, has been at Keesler since October. This was her first Thanksgiving without her family, but she was thankful Walker's friends showed her how to peel crawfish, which she compared to lobster.
"I actually felt love here," she said. "It was better than being in my dorm room, sad. I actually had a good time."
Walker said he never thought twice about hosting the men and women from the base and would do it again in a heartbeat.
"It's just second instinct for me to do it," he said.
Walker hopes other South Mississippians will consider participating in the Home Away From Home program.
"Take them in," he said. "Two, three, five -- it doesn't have to be a big number. Whatever you can take."