By Julia Killough
Military families stationed overseas often celebrate the holidays a little differently than most. However, this year, finding a sense of normalcy during the holidays is even more difficult for these overseas military families as they navigate the COVID-19 pandemic in addition to living thousands of miles away from extended friends and family.
But with the help of the USO, holiday cheer isn’t as far away as it may seem. In Italy, the USO Naples team led its first-ever drive-in “Photos with Santa” event, which allowed military families to maintain social distance while still posing for a photo with Santa and his firetruck “sleigh.”
Families stationed in Naples arrived at the event in their personal vehicles and were welcomed by USO volunteers who excitedly greeted everyone with candy canes and smiles. While families waited their turn to meet Santa, USO team members dressed up as characters like Tigger, Winnie the Pooh and the Gingerbread Man, stopped by each vehicle so the children could meet some of their favorite friends. Families were also served hot dogs and given holiday activity packets to complete for a chance to win a prize, testing their creativity with Christmas Mad Libs.
Due to the changing safety restrictions put in place by the military and local Italian government, many holiday events have been cancelled or hosted virtually. This USO program was one of the only events that offered photos with Santa, allowing families to keep a special tradition alive amidst the pandemic regulations.
“Because this is my daughter’s first Christmas, it was important to me that she got a picture with Santa,” military spouse Gianna O’Donnell said. “With COVID, I had sadly accepted it wasn’t going to happen, but thankfully I saw the flyer for the picture with Santa through the USO and got so excited.”
Service members and their families living in Europe cannot travel back home for the holidays this year, and since they are also restricted from entering other countries in the European Union, many of them will not be able to take a trip together or see their stateside friends and family. With many plans and celebrations altered, continuing traditions – such as taking photos with Santa Claus – is critical to maintaining the morale of those stationed in foreign countries this year.
The USO provides a sense of home, comfort and community during a time where it is needed most. Thanks to 27 USO volunteers, the NSA Naples Fire Department and the entire USO Naples staff, 120 military families received a professional photo with Santa to take home and share with their loved ones.
“It has been a tough year for our family, along with the rest of the world,” O’Donnell said. “But USO events like this help us forget about all of the negative things around us.”
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