By Danielle DeSimone
Here at the USO, we often say that our volunteers are the backbone of our organization – and it’s true. Without the 20,000 USO volunteers serving in USO centers around the globe, we would not be able to carry out our crucial mission of supporting service members and their families.
These volunteers help run our centers, host events, stuff care packages, lend a listening ear to weary, traveling service members and so much more. With April being National Volunteer Month, we are taking the time to acknowledge our Volunteer of the Year for the Continental United States (CONUS) of 2023: Debbie Keller, from USO Florida’s Orlando International Airport Center.
Debbie grew up in Central Florida in a military family – her father, who also led the Florida Air National Guard, retired from the Air Force as a brigadier general. Her brother also served in the Air Force, retiring as a colonel, and also did time in the Florida Air National Guard.
Although Debbie has not served directly in the Armed Forces, much of her life has been connected to the military through her 36 years of work at Lockheed Martin. Here, she worked closely with almost all branches of the military on crucial defense projects.
Debbie first discovered her interest in volunteering in support of the military while working at Lockheed Martin, when she offered up her free time to run the U.S. Marine Corps’ Toys for Tots campaign at her company, which, each year, delivered nearly $30,000 in bicycles and toys to children whose parents could not afford to buy them gifts around the holidays. Then, a little while later, the Marines who had supported her company’s campaign were deployed. So Debbie promptly began a fundraising campaign for these Marines. In collecting donations and items, Debbie and her colleagues sent over more than 3,000 pounds of care packages to deployed Marines.
That’s when Debbie truly realized how much she loved giving back to the military.
When Debbie retired, she struggled to fill her free time, until she noticed a column in her local newspaper that stated the need for volunteers at the USO center in the Orlando International Airport. She immediately went to her computer and applied to be a volunteer at the USO Florida’s Orlando International Airport Center.
Debbie started off just like any other USO volunteer at an airport center – helping run the center, welcome and check-in service members and military spouses as they enter, provide snacks and refreshments and much more. But then one day, she realized she could put her decades of experience as a financial analyst to use in support of the USO, and she offered to create a master Excel spreadsheet that tracked their center’s visitors by hour.
This immense project helped the USO Orlando International Airport Center’s staff to determine the hours that the center had the most traffic, and the most volunteer support, so that they could determine how to better staff the center and serve the needs of traveling service members and military families.
Debbie then leveraged her leadership skills from her past employment to train other USO volunteers in her center. She has now served as a Lead Volunteer for the past six years, mentoring and training other volunteers who have joined the center’s ranks. Through this, she discovered a passion for maximizing USO volunteers’ experiences, training them on all the ins and outs of USO procedures, and building relationships with other volunteers.
“I watch everybody and they’re so proud of being volunteers there,” Debbie said. “Whether they were in the service or they were in a military family, it seems like everybody always has something in common with someone else – whether that’s between the volunteers or with our guests that are coming in.”
For Debbie, volunteering with the USO is more than just a good way to spend her free time – it is a passion project for her, and allows her to provide a welcoming place for service members and their families to turn to. USO airport centers – also sometimes referred to as USO airport lounges – are made to provide comfort to the military community on their journeys. Here, they can access everything from free snacks and coffee to a comfy chair to take a quick nap. Most locations have televisions, video game systems and free Wi-Fi so visitors can use their own devices to check in with loved ones back home. Whether service members or military spouses are simply waiting for their next flight, heading overseas to a deployment, or need a quiet place to sit while stranded due to travel delays, USO airport centers are open to all members of the military community.
“You’re not supposed to have rewards when you volunteer. You’re supposed to give freely and not expect anything in return,” Debbie said. “But what I get in return is – when I walk through the center and I see someone just sleeping with their gear just laying by their side … They can’t do that outside of the center. And we provide them with a safe space, a space they can sleep and just hang out, and that’s very special.”
Debbie explained that other moments that have stood out to her while volunteering with the USO have been when she and her team of volunteers assembled thousands of USO Care Packages – when looking around and just seeing the sheer size of the operation, Debbie was truly able to feel just how much of a widespread impact these programs can have. She also has enjoyed assembling holiday stockings and backpacks full of school supplies for military children.
But what has also really stood out to Debbie are the incredible people who volunteer alongside her, such as the Gold Star Mother who, despite the loss of her son in action, continues to give back to the military community through the USO.
“It’s very special that I even get to breathe the same air with some of these folks. I cannot begin to imagine what they’ve been through,” Debbie said. “It has taught me to be a comforting presence and has helped me volunteering. It has really helped me to be a better human.”
The relationships Debbie has built by volunteering more than 2,000 hours for the USO have become invaluable. Her fellow volunteers are more than just volunteers – they’ve become close friends.
“We don’t get through this life without each other,” Debbie said. “The way people join together to make things happen is just amazing. It’s like we all have the same want to do good and support the greater good by supporting our military.”
Because of volunteers like our CONUS Volunteer of the Year Debbie Keller, who have been inspired to give back to those who serve, the USO is able to support service members and their families at our more than 250 locations around the world. We are endlessly grateful to those who offer up their time and efforts in support of our mission, and in support of America’s military.
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