By Danielle DeSimone
At the USO, volunteers are the heartbeat of our organization. Many come from a military background, others are simply inspired to give back. Regardless of what brought them to the USO, our military volunteers help ensure that we can deliver crucial support and services to our nation’s military. This commitment to service members and military families can often take up a lot of time – and for one volunteer, it has taken up years.
Meet Joanne Giannino: a USO volunteer who has been volunteering with the organization for 50 years.
Five Decades of Service and Volunteer Stories
Joanne first started volunteering for the USO when she was 20 years old in 1971. A family friend who was an avid USO volunteer at the time invited Joanne along to a USO dance at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, an Army installation. At the time, the USO would send a bus to Boston to pick up USO volunteers and transport them to and from these dances.
Once there, the volunteers – all of whom were women – would then socialize and dance with service members. These young volunteers were held to high standards of behavior and had to adhere to a strict set of rules, which forbade them from wearing tight sweaters or short skirts and from chewing gum.
“Can you believe that? Yeah, you couldn’t chew gum,” Giannino said. “We laugh at that now.”
After her first experience with the USO, Giannino was hooked. She started regularly volunteering with the organization at the center in downtown Boston.
“They had so much going on in those days because Boston was such a military town, between the ships visiting and those that were in dry dock for months of repair,” Giannino said. “So [the USO was] needed so bad.”
At the USO New England center, Giannino helped host activities for service members, such as pool tournaments or Fourth of July functions. Volunteers also served meals – cooking almost all food in their own kitchens at home – providing everything from Sunday night ice cream parties to barbecues. Many of these events served more than a thousand service members and their families.
The center also served as a pseudo-drop-in information desk for service members unfamiliar with the area.
“We would just brief them on everything to do and what not to do,” Giannino said.
Giannino explains that it was important for the USO volunteers to keep young service members out of trouble by letting them know the best places in Boston to visit. Oftentimes, when a ship would come into port, the USO center would host an event specifically for its sailors to give them something to do.
Over the past 50 years, Giannino has worked at USO New England’s center’s desk almost every Saturday, providing information and resources to service members. Five decades of service have also provided her experience in virtually every volunteer task imaginable to include helping organize holiday events and putting together care packages for service members. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, Giannino has been able to safely volunteer with her military community. Most recently, she picked up hundreds of boxes of Girl Scout cookies and then handed them out to military units all around a local base on St. Patrick’s Day.
In April of this year, Giannino was acknowledged for her 50 years of service by USO New England with a 50 Years of Service Award, stating that Giannino is “a true representative of patriotism and dedication to the USO mission, and your unwavering support for our military and their families is an example to us all.”
Giannino has many fond memories of her past 50 years of volunteering with the USO, although sailing on the USS John F. Kennedy, a decommissioned carrier, from New York to Boston and supporting its crew along the way stands out as a favorite. Hosting the volunteers’ annual Fourth of July event, which was always a big bash, is also a volunteer memory close to her heart. Half of a century is a long time to volunteer for one organization, but Giannino doesn’t seem to be slowing down – and it is the people that keep her coming back.
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Today, Giannino is still in touch with many of her fellow volunteers from her time at the USO, as well as military families that she has encountered during her service. Although Giannino has no personal connections to the Armed Forces, she emphasized how important she believed it was to support the military community.
“[The service members are] all ages and they’re away from home and it’s just, you’d bring their smile to them,” she said. “It’s such a rewarding experience to meet all these different people … You really feel like you’re giving something, you’re helping other people.”
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