It's Not About the Turkey: USO Great Lakes Feeds 2000 Sailors for the Holidays

By Chris Miller

For more than 50 years, the Adopt-A-Sailor program has enabled approximately 2,000 sailors from Naval Station Great Lakes, Illinois, to share in Thanksgiving festivities as guests of local families, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) or American Legions. That tradition was paused this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as sailors were ordered to remain on base for the holiday.

Despite the challenges of COVID-19, the USO was determined to still bring Thanksgiving to these service members.

USO Great Lakes Center Operations Specialist Lisa Slobe has hosted sailors in her home the last few years through the Adopt-A-Sailor program and she was relieved to see that the USO was able to step in and provide them with a special meal this year.

“My family and I loved bringing the sailors into our home and treating them to a nice Thanksgiving away from the base,” Slobe said. “I feel sad we’re not able to do it this year because it gave them that homey feel – plus it made us feel good.”

Knowing that the sailors could not leave the base due to COVID-19 restrictions and that many of them would most likely be attending the base-provided meal on Thanksgiving Day, USO Great Lakes decided to host its Thanksgiving meal on Wednesday, November 25. Thanks to generous donations and volunteers’ time, the USO provided food to both service members and their families, including sailors attending A-School (that is, training after bootcamp), the cadre at Recruit Training Command (RTC) and military families residing in off-base housing.

Photo credit Chris Miller/USO

USO volunteers work on packing the 1,000 Thanksgiving meals to be handed out to sailors at Naval Station Great Lakes the day before Thanksgiving. These meals went to students as well as Recruit Training Command (bootcamp) instructors.

Last year’s USO Great Lakes Thanksgiving feast was a hit among the local military community, with more than 1,200 attendees served. With the USO center being closed this year due to renovations, and keeping CDC guidelines in mind, USO staff pivoted to distribute meals in a socially distant way, and a boxed “grab-and-go” system was determined to be the best solution. More than 15 masked USO volunteers prepared and packaged the meals which included ham or turkey, stuffing, corn and mashed potatoes with gravy.

Sailors lined up early and the serving began at the temporary USO location on base at 10:30 a.m. In less than an hour, 720 Thanksgiving meals were served.

Navy Seaman Apprentice Jason Sanchez was thankful to be provided with a Thanksgiving meal, as it was his first time away from his family during a holiday.

“It was especially hard for me because I’m very close to my family,” Sanchez said. “Knowing we couldn’t go home, I’m very grateful to the USO for providing us with this Thanksgiving meal.”

While students on the main side of the base were enjoying their meals, USO Center Operations Supervisor Clarice Bernett, with help from the RTC’s Capt. Erik Thors and Master Chief Nick Wallace, delivered 280 meals to the cadre of RTC at boot camp.

“The USO providing Thanksgiving meals to sailors onboard Recruit Training Command (RTC) was awesome,” Wallace said. “The USO is truly one of the unspoken heroes for all service members, no matter where they are serving.”

Following the delivery of 1,000 Thanksgiving meals at lunch, the USO Great Lakes staff and volunteers served another 1,000 service members and military families during a Drive-Thru No Dough Dinner.

Photo credit Chris Miller/USO

USO volunteers work the drive through line handing out a meal, Thanksgiving goodies and a box of desserts. More than 500 service members and their families were served in about 90 minutes.

“Thanks to our great volunteers who not only stepped up to hand out meals but also donated extra food to families driving through for the No Dough Dinner,” Jeremiah Avers, USO Great Lakes center manager, said.

USO staff and volunteers are looking forward to next year when Thanksgiving dinner will hopefully be served in the newly renovated USO Great Lakes center, which should be completed by spring 2021. Most importantly, the USO team is looking forward to when social distancing is a thing of the past, and they can once again gather around a table with service members and military families.

However, no matter what Thanksgiving looks like or where it’s hosted, USO Great Lakes will ensure service members and their families get the Thanksgiving they deserve.

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As the COVID-19 outbreak is evolving, the USO has pivoted resources across the entire global enterprise in an approach that helps care for military members and their families.

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