By Kayla Clark
It was a cold, blistery Christmas Eve and Christmas day in southern Spain, which is quite unusual for this time of year. Normally the weather is crisp and filled with sunshine, and the community enjoys time listening to zambombas in the streets, filling up on roasted chestnuts and enjoying the twinkling lights adorning the town. This year, however, at Naval Station Rota, the holiday weather was especially dreary – but that didn’t deter the USO elves (that is, staff and volunteers), or their signature “Operation Cookie Drop.” In fact, it made it even that more critical.
Delivering Holiday Cheer to Service Members Far from Home
Operation Cookie Drop, a key local program for USO Rota, was conceived shortly after the USO center’s official opening back in 2017. The mission of Operation Cookie Drop is to deliver holiday joy and cheer to service members on duty on both Christmas Eve and Christmas day through gifts of individually-packaged homemade cookies.
This program receives over 2,000 donated cookies each year, which are then packaged with festive ribbons and bows and then given out by USO staff and volunteers dressed as elves, snowmen and other special North Pole characters. Both mornings, these special “elves” get together early in the day before sunrise to map out their deliveries before getting suited up in their festive attire. They then prepare their holiday music playlist and set out to surprise service members by bringing happiness and cheer to the base.
“As prior service, I remembered what it felt like to work over the holidays. Even though they made a special meal at the chow hall, and we perhaps put up lights on dispatch, the holiday was a bit overlooked and just another workday,” said former USO Rota center manager DeAnna Pazdyk.
Pazdyk explained that it was her experience in the military, as well as the shared experiences of USO Rota’s volunteers, that helped inspire Operation Cookie Drop.
“We have a great community who always want a way to feel connected, so we got them involved in a cookie drive, and they became our volunteers to help make the holidays a little brighter.”
The first year of Operation Cookie Drop, 2017, the USO Rota center was bustling and busy. The center had organized shift after shift of volunteers to come in with baked cookies. The volunteers also worked diligently after hours decorating, packaging and freezing the cookies to get ready for the big delivery days.
“Finally, on Christmas Eve, with a squad of volunteers, we donned our elf and holiday gear, loaded up and ‘stormed the base,’ dropping off a ‘blitz’ of cookies to all on-duty near and far with the battle cry of ‘Happy Holidays’ and the soundtrack of Jingle bells,” Pazdyk said.
“The next day we did it all over again. After seeing the smiling faces of the service members and sharing some time with them, our volunteers were hooked and couldn’t wait to do it again. It is a program that makes a lot of people in our community feel merry and bright.”
USO volunteer and retired Navy Corpsman Beverly Litz, baked and donated well over 500 cookies for the operation and volunteered to deliver them on Christmas day this year. For her, baking for others takes time, dedication and “feels like love.” She wanted to be able to give that love back to her military community, especially with her own personal experience and understanding of the sacrifices service members make while being away from their families during the holiday season.
“Operation Cookie Drop means spreading some cheer on a day when service members might rather be with their families but can’t,” Litz said. “These little goodies bring some homemade love and show them someone cares when they might be feeling alone.”
This year, the skies were cloudy and gray and the rain was pouring, but the smiles were bountiful. Each day, these USO elves loaded up into a big USO van, adorned with a wreath on the grill, and set out to canvas the base. Sleigh stops were made to the security gates, the hospital, the deployed Seabees of NMCB-1, the FASTEUR Marines, all three fire stations, the post office, the Navy Lodge and Navy Gateway Inns & Suites and all four destroyers in-port, including the USS Ross, USS Roosevelt, USS Porter and USS Arleigh Burke.
“Having the opportunity to deliver cookies to our service members was the highlight of my Christmas,” said Center Operations Manager, Cassie Rudden. “Being able to show them how much they are appreciated and make even a small, positive impact on their holiday is really what working for the USO is all about.”
On Christmas Day this year, with the especially dreary conditions, the elves added a new comfort: some warm, white chocolate lattes and sweet cocoa deliveries to those standing watch outside. Sailors manning the entry control points or quarterdecks on base were treated to these warm cups topped with whipped cream, making the perfect pairing for the iced sugar cookies.
The USO sleigh also had a surprise stop at the USS San Jacinto, which was visiting in port during the holidays. The elves were escorted through the ship, the mess decks and the wardroom, where they received the biggest surprise.
“My favorite part of the day was seeing the excitement in the faces of everyone as they saw us approaching. But more specifically, it was when one sailor on duty rushed out and gave [a USO volunteer dressed as] Frosty the Snowman the biggest, most meaningful hug – like seeing us was the best part of his day,” said Litz.
USO Rota plans to continue Operation Cookie Drop in future holiday seasons.
As USO volunteers Master Chief Petty Officer Ken Virgilio and his wife Ruth said: “It is important for service members to know that they are thought of and that not one single person is forgotten during the holidays.”
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