The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families Tour is Off and Running

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The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families kicked off April 4 with a pair of performances for more than 870 military family members at Scott Air Force Base, Ill.

Grover, Cookie Monster, Rosita and their newest friend, Katie – a specially-created character who is a child from a military family that’s moving to a new place – preformed during the 30-minute show. The characters enthusiastically thanked the military families in attendance and shared messages of support and encouragement for children, who have to deal with frequent moves and unique stressors because of their parents’ profession.

The tour is currently heading southeast, with performances at Fort Knox, Ky., Fort Campbell, Ky., and three shows at Fort Bragg, N.C., in the next 10 days. Check out the tour schedule.

USO Volunteer Stories: Read the 4 Runners-Up From Our Contest

We asked and they delivered.

The USO put a call out to our volunteers to send us their best USO stories. As part of celebrating National Volunteer Week, here are four fantastic stories from Fort Campbell, Ky., USO New England, USO Northwest (in Seattle) and USO Hawaii that we selected as the runners up.

Check back here Friday to see the winner.

Barbara Lemieux, USO New England (Logan Airport center)

I work in retail. One day, a customer approached me and asked me to help her with an item. She seemed very nice. Very pretty, petite, pleasant and dressed very professionally. I had no doubt she must be in town on a very important business trip for a company with which she surely must be highly ranked.

I spend quite a few minutes with her but eventually we found the item she needed. I escorted her to the register and had one of the sales associates ring her up. Just as she was paying, another associate came up to me and asked me if it was my day to leave early to go volunteer at the USO. I told her it was. The customer’s ears perked up when she heard the USO mentioned. She asked me if I worked with the USO. I told her I volunteered at the Logan Airport Center. Her mouth dropped open and then she proceeded to tell me her experiences with the USO.

She told me how the USO helped her when she was designated to retrieve her father’s body. He was, I believe, in the Air Force and was stationed overseas. She was very close to her father and she told me it was one of the toughest things she had had to do. She had a couple of hours to wait for a connecting flight. Being an Air Force veteran herself, she saw the USO sign in the airport and decided to rest a while there. She told us there was a kind woman volunteering that day. Even though they were both strangers, she remembers this woman making her feel so much better as she explained the reason why she was waiting for a flight. She was able to hold it together thanks to the kindness of this woman and brought her father’s remains back home.

Unfortunately, a few months later, as she was still grieving from losing her father, she was diagnosed with cancer. She was not given much chance of survival and was referred to a top-notch cancer center in another state. She immediately made arrangements to fly to the cancer center. At this point, as she explained to me, she was numb with despair. She told me most of the flight to the center was a blur. She again had connecting flights and decided to see if there was another USO center in that airport. Much to her relief, she found one.

Once again, she entered the center and made herself comfortable. She was greeted by yet another woman volunteering at the center who welcomed her and listened to her story and encouraged her to stay strong and keep her faith that everything would work out in the end.

The customer took a deep breath as she finished her story. Tears were collecting in her eyes. She thanked me for what I did. At this point, myself and the two associates at the register were speechless. She reached across the counter, took my hand in hers and told me she will never forget how the USO and the two volunteers that she had met had  such a huge impact on her life at two of her darkest moments. She thanked me again for all that I do and for all the volunteers at the USO.

She turned around and left the store. I knew then that, even though those two volunteers at the two USO centers may never know how deeply they affected this woman’s life, I was doing the right thing. My goal with the USO – other than having the opportunity to thank military personnel – is to be there for someone who may be far away from their family and could use a warm greeting or friendly smile.

As one of my co-volunteers once said, USO doesn’t stand for United Service Organizations. It stands for “thank you.” I believe we are but a residue of all the sacrifices that our military personnel have done for many decades.

Chris Palmer, USO Fort Campbell, Ky.

I was just a volunteer at the USO when one day I met the love of my life. His name is Gary, and I met him in March at the USO Ft. Campbell. I had signed up to work the evening shift that Saturday because our director had said that they needed a volunteer that afternoon. The shift started as usual, but little did I know that it would be more than just an ordinary shift. Another volunteer that day was a tall and handsome volunteer named Gary. We worked the shift together, and I knew pretty quickly that he was a special guy. Gary was an excellent volunteer that strived to lift the spirits of the active duty troops and their families. He took extra time to help them with whatever they needed, and we quickly realized that we had a connection. That one volunteer shift changed the rest of our lives. We are now engaged to be married in June of 2014!

Every moment in our lives counts. That one volunteer shift not only allowed us to help others together that day, but also put two people together so that we could help others together for the rest of our lives. I am very thankful for what the USO has done for us, and I look forward to making more moments count for soldiers and their families!

Jon Randolph, USO Northwest (SeaTac Center)

I was an airman stationed at the hospital on Goose Air Base in Labrador, Canada. An airman injured himself on the flight line and needed to be evacuated to the States. I was able to be the medic along with the doctor to evacuate the airman. We finally landed – no jets in those days, just a great big cargo plane rom Tule – at Andrews Air Force Base after a six-hour flight. The airman was met by the Walter Reed staff and an ambulance. We were then allowed to proceed on leave for the holidays. I took a cab to Union Station in Washington, the morning of Christmas Eve. I walked into the USO at the station. They were kind enough to help me get one of the last seats on the Baltimore and Ohio Capital Limited train to Chicago and helped me out to the  train. The trip was eventful At Harper Ferry, an Amish Family got on carrying baskets of holiday food and goodies. The whole train coach car was treated to a wonderful feast on Christmas Eve. I will never forget it. If not for the USO at Union Station, I would not have made it to Chicago to meet my future wife on Christmas morning.

Robert Gowan, USO Hawaii

I was recently providing ice-cold bottled water and cold pop to a group of 25th Infantry Division soldiers on the Big Island. One of them told me how much it meant to him to still see USO volunteers operating . He told me that as the wars wound down, many of the groups of citizens that used to greet them as they moved through airports had disappeared. But he knew that they could always count on the USO to have its locations open and available. It really surprised him to see a group of USO volunteers way out here on the coast of the Big Island, offering them something they really needed: ice-cold bottled water.

* Stories are edited from their original versions

‘It’s My Turn to Give Back’: USO Las Vegas Volunteers support Air Force Trials for Warrior Games

LAS VEGAS–More than 100 participants and onlookers screamed their support for their fellow wounded warriors racing in the pool Monday at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. And standing on the periphery of the Buchanan Natatorium were six USO volunteers waiting to help however they could.

“They have a deep appreciation and passion for serving the military,” USO Las Vegas Center Director Jennifer Earl said.

The USO is celebrating National Volunteer Week at our 160-plus locations worldwide. But even as we honor the volunteers who fuel our organization, they continue to give back to America’s service members. USO Las Vegas volunteers are supporting the Air Force Trials all week, which is the competition the service branch uses to select its entrants to this fall’s Warrior Games.

Trio of NFL Players Visit USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir for P&G Event

Photos from last week's meet-and-greet with NFL players at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Va. USO photos

Photos from last week’s meet-and-greet with NFL players at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Va. USO photos

FORT BELVOIR, Va.—A buzz was in the air Thursday as 200 military families at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir awaited the arrival of three NFL players. Cheers erupted as a trio of wide receivers – the Baltimore Ravens’ Steve Smith, the New England Patriots’ Brandon Lafell and the Washington Redskins’ Andre Roberts walked into the room.

The players’ appearance was due in part to long time USO Partner, Procter & Gamble. In a joint promotion with the Defense Commissary Agency, Procter & Gamble will be awarding nine ProCamps to bases this summer. ProCamps are sports camps led by professional athletes that are designed to teach basic skills and teamwork to kids in kindergarten up through eighth grade. Procter & Gamble is presenting this program under their Family Unit platform, which is a partnership with the USO to provide resources, information and offers to military families.

“This summer, 1,500 kids on military bases are going to have the opportunity to play and learn from some of the best NFL players,” said Barbra Kelly, Proctor and Gamble’s Senior Marketing Manager, Shopper Based Marketing. “This is a once in a lifetime experience.”

The players spent an hour signing autographs, talking with troops and taking pictures. Sgt. 1st Class Shakeisha Cheeks, who brought her children to the event, said she’s attended several events at the center.

“The USO is so supportive of military families,” Cheeks said. “Events like this are great. We like to come out and have fun. Since we’ve been here, we’ve been to over 50 or 60 USO events. The USO is really doing great things for military families.”

-Katie Zeller

National Volunteer Week: Frank and Helen Marsh

Frank and Helen Marsh represent the lifeblood of the USO: our volunteers. Frank served as a parachute rigger in the Marines from 1955 to 1957, and was promoted to the rank of sergeant before he got out. He and his wife Helen found their USO volunteer opportunity through the Knights of Columbus, where Frank has been a member for almost 50 years.

We caught up with the Marshes at the USO Marine Corps Trials at Camp Pendleton, Calif.,  where they handed out energy bars, snacks and refreshments to wounded warriors competing in the archery event.

Volunteers Add Healing Touch at USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Va.

FORT BELVOIR, Va.-The USO Warrior and Family Center here serves a unique community, and couldn’t operate without a cadre of trained volunteers. The center caters to wounded, ill and injured troops and their caregivers and families recovering from both visible and invisible wounds of war.

“Our volunteers here are amazing,” said Pam Horton, Director of USO Warrior and Family Centers. “There is not a chance we could have done a tenth of what we’ve done if they hadn’t been here.”

The USO is proud to celebrate National Volunteer Week. Our 29,000-plus volunteers donate roughly 1.5 million hours of service each year. They’re the reason the service members and their families who walk through our doors more than 8 million times each year feel welcome.