How USO Centers Serve as a Family Living Room for Service Members Far From Their Families

By Sarah Kemp

This holiday season, while we celebrate at home with our loved ones, many of our young service members will be spending their first holiday away from home.

Each year, service members who are in basic training and other training courses cannot make the trip home for the holidays. For some, their home is too far away. For others, they want to save money on an airplane ticket. Many cannot travel due to COVID-19 restrictions. And there are also a few that do not have connections to home.

Every week, Fort Jackson in South Carolina graduates approximately 1,000 soldiers from their 10-week basic training course, and every year about 175 of these soldiers stay at the base over the holidays. For 12 years now, the USO team has supported these service members by hosting days of events called “Holiday Holdover.” Each event that the USO hosts is planned for this very specific audience of 18 to 20-year-old men and women in uniform. In the past, they have enjoyed human hamster ball races, professional hockey games, a live performance from The Chainsmokers and holiday-themed events like a hot chocolate bar.

Photo credit USO Photo

Service members take off on a race across the ice at a South Carolina Stingrays game in 2015.

There are moments each year that tug at the heartstrings of USO South Carolina Senior Center Operations and Programs Manager Katie Kennedy. She described a time in which she was insisting to a soldier that he did not have to help them pick up trash after an event.

He said to us, look – I’ve never had a real family before, and I joined the Army to have one. I know this is what families do,” Kennedy said.

The continuum of care stretches to Northwest Florida, where service members are often sent after basic training to complete specialized courses. USO Executive Director Dana Cervantes explained that the USO team there gets to know the service members who come into the centers multiple times a week throughout their six-month course. These USO centers are made to feel like home in many ways, such as when volunteers show service members how to cook their favorite family recipes. The Christmas trees in the USO centers remain bare until the service members decorate them, and the staff delight in seeing the joy on the service members’ faces as they recreate this family tradition far from home.

USO volunteer Richard Yeskis is recognized as USO Northwest Florida at Pensacola International Airport Volunteer of the Year in 2017. | Photo credit USO Photo

Richard Yeskis volunteers with the USO because he knows what it feels like to spend 16 years overseas, as he did during his time in the Navy. Now, every year, Yeskis looks forward to helping with all the holiday programming at USO Northwest Florida.

“We’ll see a group of them come into the USO with ordered pizzas and do their gift exchange here, because to them, the USO is their family living room,” Yeskis said.

USO staff and volunteers give their time during the holidays to execute everything from Christmas Day barbeques, to Santa selfies and cookie decorating – and they would not have it any other way.

Photo credit USO Photo

Service members gather for an Holiday Holdover outdoor dinner during a beautiful sunset in 2017.

USO South Carolina Executive Director Joanie Thresher explained that she is constantly inspired by the sacrifices our military makes. During one particular holiday event, Thresher witnessed such sacrifice represented in a simple yet poignant way.

The service members who participate in Holiday Holdover events usually do not know each other because they are in different training battalions. Yet, Thresher witnessed an act of kindness when a young soldier mentioned that the carrot-flavored snacks provided were his favorite because he did not have access to many vegetables growing up. Without a word, the other soldiers nearby began sorting through their USO bags to give him their carrot snacks. Although somewhat understated, it’s this ingrained sense of sacrifice on the behalf of others that truly sets our nation’s service members apart – and why it is such an honor to support them.

Service members play a game of Giant Jenga during the Holiday Holdover at Ft. Jackson in 2017. | Photo credit USO Photo

This year, both USO South Carolina and USO Northwest Florida and many other USO locations around the world will plan a modified version of Holiday Holdover events for our service members. While the offerings may change, the goal of connection stays the same.

Cervantes recalled a memory on Christmas Eve where, during a rowdy game of bingo, she heard a soldier on the phone with his mom. His mom sounded concerned until the soldier said he was at the USO. The mother’s tone immediately changed, sounding relieved as she said she did not have to worry since the USO was taking care of him.

“That became my goal,” Cervantes said. “You don’t have to worry about your kid when they’re at the USO, because we’re their home away from home.”

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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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