By Staff Sgt. Brigitte Morgan, 354th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
In the face of uncertain times, the USO of Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey has provided hope to military families sending their kids back to school this fall. The USO’s “Rucksacks to Backpacks” program has helped military families by providing essential school supplies to children of service members.
This year, the “Rucksacks to Backpacks” program distributed over 2,000 backpacks filled with school supplies to military kids across Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey.
In western Pennsylvania, USO volunteers hosted the backpack program under the shade of open-air tents at the Pittsburgh International Airport Air Reserve Station earlier this month. The volunteers were ready to help each child choose their favorite color backpack, markers, crayons, glue sticks, notebooks and even some homemade cookies and ice cream.
“We realize this is a challenging time because a lot of kids don’t know if they’re going back to school,” said Christine Ree, a center operations manager at the USO of Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey’s location in Moon Township, Pennsylvania.
Due to COVID-19, service members’ children will be returning to school either online, in-person or a hybrid combination of the two. Ree explained that regardless of which platform each school is on, the students will still have schoolwork to do and will need the provided supplies.
“It’s sooo heavy,” said Zachary Yonushonis, a soon-to-be second grader from Moon Township, as he fumbled with the arm straps of his new, dark gray backpack. Despite returning to school online, Yonushonis was still excited, and he was especially excited to read more LEGO character books this year.
“I think this program gives these kids some kind of anchor of normalcy during these times,” said Dan Pfeifer, a USO volunteer and resident of Moon Township. “It gives something tangible to these young kids to be able to put their best foot forward and be excited to learn.”
USO Center Serves as a Place of Support for Military Families
The USO is well known for its support of service members and their families by providing comfort items and food, as well as offering a variety of other support programs.
According to Ree, the USO of Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey’s location in Moon Township opened in January of 2020 and is the first of the organization’s presence in the Pittsburgh area since 1947. Ree said prior USO location in the area was closed due to the decline in foot traffic after World War II.
“So now, here we are all these years later, happy to be here making a presence in western Pennsylvania,” Ree said. She explained that the location’s service region extends from the southern border of the state, north to Erie and as far east as Johnstown and Altoona.
The Importance of Supporting Military Families During COVID-19
Ree explained that this was the first event they were able to host since some COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted. She stated that the event was a success, with service members and their families from all branches in attendance and benefiting from the school supplies.
The program took a significant amount of behind-the-scenes work to organize the donors, publicize the event, sort the supplies and fill the backpacks.
“We’re very blessed with some strong and dedicated and passionate volunteers,” Ree said.
USO volunteer Linda Horner described how rewarding it felt to hand out backpacks to the military children.
“It might not have been everything they needed, but at least it’s a start,” she said. “So, it’s [because of] those kinds of things that I felt joy in my heart.”
-This story originally appeared on dvidshub.net. It has been edited for USO.org.
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