As Military Families Head Online During COVID-19 Quarantines, So Does USO Programming Around the World

By Danielle DeSimone and Sandi Gohn

Nobody is ready for a pandemic. But if there’s a community that is skilled at remaining resilient through the ups and downs of life, it’s the military and their families.

Service members, military spouses and their children are often faced with uncertainty and challenging situations, and the recent COVID-19 pandemic is yet another moment that will test the resiliency of our nation’s military personnel.

But they are not alone. Since World War II, the USO has always been by their side, and we will continue to be – virtually.

As social distancing and quarantine become crucial in stopping the coronavirus pandemic, the USO has adapted some of its programs to be delivered to service members right through their computer screens, particularly in areas where we, too, had to close our doors because of the pandemic.

Online Activity Programs for Military Children

Throughout the United States and overseas, many schools and day cares are closing for at least two weeks to limit exposure to the coronavirus.

This means that many parents must now homeschool their children while social distancing inside for two weeks. For military spouses with a deployed service member, or a spouse who must still go to work, this sudden change in lifestyle to single-parenting can be overwhelming.

Although several USO centers around the world are also closed as a result of the pandemic, USO staffers have developed some unique, online ways to help alleviate some of the pressure and time commitment involved in full-time childcare.

This includes everything from digital scavenger hunts through USO Vicenza’s Facebook page to live-streamed movie trivia with USO Naples.

For military families in areas heavily affected by lockdowns and quarantines, these kinds of virtual programs are a source of connection to the outside world, and to each other.

Military Families Enjoy Free Online Reading Programs

Speaking of children’s activities, one of the USO’s most popular services is its storytime programs for military children and families.

With the entire country of Italy on lockdown, USO Naples has gotten creative in how they’ve provided programs and services remotely to the military community. | Photo credit USO Naples

Now that military personnel stationed in countries such as Italy and South Korea are in full lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the loss of these community-building and morale-boosting programs has been difficult. That’s why – in an effort to support even the youngest members of our military community – the USO has gone digital.

Locations, such as USO Vicenza, have started live-streaming “Cyber Storytime,” via Facebook to provide a morale boost to military children and parents alike. During these sessions, which families can also watch at a later time that is convenient for them, USO employees dress up as superheroes, princesses and book characters and read stories to the camera.

USO locations in the United States are also diving into storytime.

Even though USO airport locations have temporarily suspended operations, they are still dedicated to supporting the military community. The BWI Airport USO Lounge is now offering daily storytime readings and educational resources for military children to tune into, along with the option for volunteers to “guest-read” stories as well.

Virtual Military Spouse Programs

While many quarantined military families are, understandably, trying keep their little ones busy and happy, the USO recognizes that military spouses need a little TLC during this challenging time, too.

Photo credit Courtesy Brittany Boccher

Brittany Boccher, the 2017 AFI Military Spouse of the Year.

That’s why, on March 16, 17 and 18, spouses could virtually attend one of three workshops - “Discovering Your Spark with Brittany Boccher” - to talk about how to live their life with passion and purpose. These free workshops, led by the 2017 AFI Military Spouse of the Year Brittany Boccher and co-hosted by the USO, were open to all spouses of active duty members of the military.

Additionally, on March 26, spouses are also encouraged to join the USO Military Spouse Community for its monthly virtual “Coffee Connections Live” series. This month, the group will be having virtual coffee with energy coach, mindset mentor and military spouse Maralis Self.

Online Creative Arts Programs for Military Families and Children

According to the Harvard Medical School, art and other creative activities can relieve stress, aid communication and improve resiliency. When separated from their communities in the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic, getting creative is exactly the kind of thing our military families need.

In Naples, Italy, Ciro and Andrea Scotto D'Aniello hold up their “andrà tutto bene” sign. | Photo credit Luisa Mazzella

USO locations in Italy are currently closed, but to bolster the resiliency of those stationed in-country, the USO is providing virtual creative arts programs for military families. In places like Vicenza, Italy – a region that has been hit hard by coronavirus cases – the USO team there has a hosted a live-streamed DIY stress ball-making class.

Farther south, at USO Naples, military children can submit their writing and artwork to the 2020 Month of the Military Child Art & Essay Contest, which provides military kids with a chance to express what it’s like to be a military child. USO Naples is also standing in solidarity with the local Italian community by creating, and encouraging others to create, posters with the Italian phrase “andrà tutto bene,” or, “everything will be alright.” These posters, often decorated with cheerful rainbows, are being hung on balconies and in windows all around Italy, to bolster courage and reassure those who are dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

USO Stuttgart team member Tori Bogue shows how to make a DIY lava lamp via Facebook Live. | Photo credit USO Stuttgart

In Stuttgart, Germany, where the USO center is also closed, USO staffers have started hosting virtual moments of creative connection for both children and adults. On March 17, the team live-streamed a homemade lava lamp-making class on their Facebook page and plans to host a slew of other creative programming in the upcoming weeks.

Virtual Fitness Programming for Military Families

It’s no secret that exercise helps improve mental health by “reducing anxiety, depression and negative mood and by improving self-esteem.”

In times of social isolation like the current COVID-19 quarantine, staying active can be particularly helpful in maintaining resiliency in both the civilian and military communities.

That’s why in Rota, Spain, the USO Rota staff is committed to sharing information to keep military families entertained, happy and healthy – including free DIY workout routines – while the center is temporarily closed. The routines, which are developed by a fitness instructor and USO volunteer, started on March 17 and will be posted daily to the center’s Facebook page.

USO Stuttgart is also getting in on the virtual fitness movement and will be posting at-home workout routines to their Facebook page over the next week.

Holiday Themed Programs, From the Comfort of Home

Even during a mass quarantine, the USO believes festive red-letter days, like St. Patrick’s Day, are still worth celebrating.

USO Vicenza’s Sarah Parsons shows how to use a bell pepper to make St. Patrick’s Day art via Facebook Live. | Photo credit USO Vicenza

That’s why the USO Vicenza team in northern Italy offered St. Patrick’s Day-themed programming for military families on March 17. Via the center’s Facebook page, the team live-streamed video of a step-by-step creative corner activity demonstrating how to make a DIY shamrock stamp using a bell pepper.

Additionally, the USO Vicenza team hosted a themed virtual scavenger hunt using the center’s past Facebook photo albums and a series of sneaky clues. To participate, military families were encouraged to log on to the center’s Facebook page at three specific times during the day for clues. Each clue pointed to a specific, previously-uploaded image on the center’s Facebook page. The first three participants to find all three answers correctly even won prizes, which they will claim once the USO center re-opens.

Across Europe in Spain, the USO Rota team live-streamed a special St. Patrick’s Day-themed storytime on Facebook. The reader, USO Center Operations Specialist Kayla Clark, even donned a leprechaun costume to bring smiles to all who tuned in to watch the video. Earlier in the day, the team also shared printable, themed coloring sheets on the USO Rota Facebook page.

Are you or someone you know a member of the military community? How are you staying connected during the coronavirus pandemic? We’d love to hear from you – email us at [email protected].

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