By Megan Mills
As Italy, followed by the rest of the world, imposed restrictions earlier this year to help stop the spread of COVID-19, the USO team at Naval Air Station Sigonella quickly found new ways to continue its mission of keeping service members connected to everything they love.
As a nonprofit, military support organization that works closely with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), the USO has more than 250 locations around the world, including its center at NAS Sigonella on the island Sicily, which has been providing valuable programming since 2016. USO Sigonella’s work relies on the efforts of a dedicated and trained volunteer force, mostly made up of active duty military members, as well as three full-time staff members.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, USO Sigonella provided a slew of programs and services to the area, including flight support at the base air terminal, weekly free lunches, a “Taste of Home” meal event for unaccompanied service members, trivia and game nights, a Teddy Bear Club for families with young children and much more.
“We do things to put a smile on people’s faces and lift their spirits,” said USO Sigonella Center Director Brian Coyle.
But after the COVID-19 pandemic first hit Italy this spring, and new social distancing restrictions were set in place, many of these USO Sigonella activities were halted almost overnight. However, that didn’t stop the USO team from finding ways to support the NAS Sigonella community.
USO Virtual Programming and a New, Socially-Distanced Normal
Early in the pandemic, the entire USO Italy team, including USO Sigonella, began presenting virtual programming as a way to continue the organization’s mission.
Locally, USO Sigonella hosted daily cyber challenges, weekly online meditations and online trivia and bingo games. The team even took its Teddy Bear Club online, turning the program into a live video event for military families to follow at home.
The virtual programming initiative started by USO Italy quickly took off at other USO locations around the world and has become part of the “new normal” at the organization.
Now, even USO entertainment offerings have gone virtual, with celebrities connecting with service members and their families through live video events. In the month of July alone, the USO hosted virtual entertainment events with Jeff Gordon, Kenny “The Jet” Smith, Tamron Hall, David Boreanaz, Charlize Theron and Kiki Layne, Stephanie Quayle, Chef Joel Gamoran and Craig Morgan. The organization also hosted a star-studded Independence Day special online event as well as a virtual a Call of Duty tournament.
Interestingly, there has been one in-person program USO Sigonella maintained throughout the entire pandemic – its flight support program. Although the team had to adopt a contactless delivery method, the USO continued to provide snacks, water, Wi-Fi and a place to relax to those visiting the terminal.
“We have seen six or seven flights a week since March,” Coyle said. “We’re the only center that has stayed open the entire lockdown, though with modified hours, of course.”
A Glimpse of Returning to Normal
Luckily, in the past few weeks, as COVID-19 restrictions have eased in Italy, several of USO Sigonella’s in-person programs have resumed with new safety measures in place.
For example, before the pandemic, the USO hosted a weekly Tuesday lunch that served upwards of 70 people with free hot dogs, chili dogs, chips, drinks and chance to relax and connect with fellow service members. Now, these weekly lunches have resumed, but are grab-and-go to promote social distancing best practices.
Additionally, many of USO Sigonella’s volunteers are gradually starting to return to donating their time in person again. According to USO Sigonella Programs and Volunteer Coordinator Jaymi Schap, the location has nearly 60 volunteers on the books, and that number has stayed constant throughout this year. While many were on standby during the strictest lockdown period in Italy, several are now gradually volunteering again.
“Our primary concern in bringing volunteers back is that nobody gets sick. We have a hand-washing station, gloves and masks for people to use,” Coyle said.
Adapting to a world with COVID-19 hasn’t been easy, but the USO has demonstrated how an organization can pivot effectively.
“We’ve had to re-imagine and modify things going forward,” Coyle said. “We are building connections in new and different ways with both service members and volunteers.”
“Not being able to provide our in-person programs was a challenge,” Schap said. “We really thrive off being able to see the smiles on people’s faces and connect with those attending our programs, so it will be great to connect with our service members and their families [in person], even at social distance. We are starting to bring some programs back in August and some new ones as well, in compliance of the health and safety standards set by the Command.”
Some initiatives, such as virtual trivia and bingo, may be here for the long haul.
“Going all-virtual was such a hit, we are continuing to keep some of our virtual programs going, even with us being in-person again,” Schap said.
USO Staffer Steps Up to the Occasion
Though the USO Sigonella office is supposed to have three, full-time staff members, by the time June rolled around, they were unexpectedly down to one just staffer – Schap, who joined the USO in July 2019.
Despite the staffing shortage, Schap often went above and beyond her role as the programs and volunteer coordinator during this time, taking on additional duties. She also managed this heavy workload while juggling being a mom to three school-age children who were distance learning at home.
Considering Schap’s background, her success isn’t a surprise. She has a background in community health and developing programs to serve diverse communities, which perfectly fits the USO’s mission.
“We work hard to provide each demographic we serve here in Sigonella programs that can help them meet new people, boost morale along with serving as a familiar place to go where they know they will always be welcomed with open arms,” she said.
Nevertheless, she faced the same challenges that many working families did – and still do – during this pandemic.
“I have been a military wife for 17 years, so adapting to situations thrown at me is something I have become accustomed to,” she said. “It was almost like I didn’t have time to think about it. I had my kids to take care of and a job to do for our community.”
Schap’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. She recently won the USO’s Ovation Award in recognition of her work.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the way that she has stepped up and taken on the leadership role and done a great job in serving our service members and their families,” Coyle said.
Both Schap and the USO will continue to adapt as needed to continue to serve the NAS Sigonella community. As Schap says, “Our mission is to strengthen America’s service members by keeping them connected to family, home and country throughout their service to the nation, and we truly are dedicated to achieving that any way we can.”
-This story originally appeared on DVIDS.net. It has been edited for USO.org.
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