Cake Decorator Raises Dough for USO

Chris with one of his masterpieces!

Meet Chris Kasparek, the cake boss of Naples, Italy.

He’s a Navy civilian, marathon runner and cake designer extraordinaire.  And he’s putting all his talents to work for the USO.

Kasparek hadn’t planned on running a marathon this year, but a few months ago he saw a Facebook post about Team USO and decided he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to compete for a good cause.

“I had run three [marathons] in the last five years and had felt my body just wasn’t up for it,” he said, “And then I saw the link and was inspired.”

Team USO has a limited number of guaranteed registrations for the New York City marathon for runners who raise a minimum of $3,000.  Slots are also available for the Marine Corps marathon, with a fundraising requirement of $1,200 and the Air Force marathon with a $700 requirement.

Kasparek, the Navy’s director of child and youth programs in Naples, will compete in the New York City event, and he knew exactly how he would raise the dough. He put out the word to friends and colleagues, offering one of his famous custom cakes in exchange for a contribution.

The 37-year-old husband and father of two first started baking cakes for his children’s birthday parties, carrying on a tradition passed down by his father.

“My dad had decorated our cakes when we were kids growing up… I watched him and it was just like, ‘I want to do that for my kids.’  They’ve already said they want to do it for their kids.” 

You name it, he’s baked it—pirates and princesses, penguins and ponies, and every imaginable superhero.

So far, Kasparek has raised $3,360 for the USO, with about $700 coming from his cakes.  He’s hoping to push past the $4,000 mark by race time.

He’s been passionate about the USO since working with them last year after the deadly earthquake and tsunami in Japan.  He was sent to the Seattle airport to help coordinate child care for Japanese families who’d been evacuated to the U.S., and he was immediately impressed by the USO’s efficiency and compassion.

“Through their communications avenues, donations were coming in—diapers, food for the babies, games, coloring books, just everything that would make these families comfortable as they arrived from Japan… Whatever we needed, they found a way to get for us.”

Kasparek feels it’s his turn to give back to the USO and the troops.

He recently added a weight loss challenge to his fundraising efforts.  He’s trying to shed 35 pounds by race time.  If he doesn’t lose it all, he’ll pay back part of your pledge and cover the difference himself.

“I’ve slowed down on the cakes so I can concentrate on training,” said Kasparek, “Cakes don’t help training.” - Malini Wilkes , USO Director of Story Development

With You All the Way Hits Germany

We recently completed our spring portion of the With You All the Way tour. We spoke to about 15,000 kids, all of them overseas. This portion of the tour had somewhat of a bittersweet ending. The good news is that we get to rest a little bit over the summer. The bad news is that we are going to miss being around this brave group of kids for a while. Plus, a number of bases we visited are closing or consolidating, which means big changes for the military and many of the families.

Trevor RomainWe were in three cities in central Germany, Weisbaden, Heidelberg, and Stuttgart. The Heidelberg area is home to two elementary schools, Manheim Elementary school and Patrick Henry Elementary school. Manheim Elementary is closing its doors this year. Due to the army drawdown and plans for realignment in Europe, schools and bases are closing down. It has been open since 1946, and in the early nineties it had about 2,000 students. Today, there are only about 200, and those kids will be moving somewhere else next year. In fact, many are having to move now, back to the states. Many more know they are moving soon, but don’t know where they are going.

We spoke to one little girl, who towards the end of the presentation, finally had the courage to say something. Her dad was currently deployed, and she  and her mom were having to move to Colorado in the next couple of days. She was petrified, and rightfully so. I can’t imagine have my family be uprooted to a somewhere far away while I was deployed to Afghanistan and not able to offer any help. However, because the little girl had the courage to speak up, we were able to offer some assistance and expedite shipping of her USO family empowerment pack so she could have it for her travels.

Patrick Henry Elementary school is also going to close soon. These families are really in a state of flux because they know they are going to have to move but don’t know when and don’t know where. Living in this state of uncertainty is causing much stress on a lot of families. We had two great presentations at Patrick Henry. The kids were so engaged and had plenty to say. One thing that stood out in particular for me though, was a shy little girl in the back who had the courage to raise her hand.  We ask the kids what they learned during the video portion of our presentation. So she felt the need to say something. I asked, what she learned and very quietly but confidently said, “You don’t have to be in a special group to be special.” Wow, I hope everyone can learn from that.

Trever Romain consoles a young girl during his With You All The Way tour in Vicenza, Italy, recently.

We spent our last couple of days in Stuttgart. We had no idea how big Stuttgart was. There is about 5 million people in the city and surrounding area. Stuttgart is a beautiful city. It is where old meets new. Buildings that are 700 years old living happily with very modern buildings. We went to a school called Patch Elementary, on the Patch military base, which is a large army base. We had some really good presentations again. But we want to leave you with one email we received from a mom. It really makes us feel good about what we are doing and how important the work the USO is doing for military families:

 Dear Mr. Romain.  Thank you for coming to Patch Elementary School in Stuttgart.  My son did not stop talking about your visit all the way home in the car.  Then something happened when we got to the house.  You see my husband was hurt and he lost part of his leg and my son seems ashamed and angry about what happened. He always wanted to take his anger out by himself and stay locked in his room alone and did not want to deal with his dad.  And it was so hard for my husband.  He said that kind of pain was worse than his injury. Today when he came home my son wrote a letter to his dad and said he loved him and wanted to help him get better. I’m not sure what you said to him but thank you and Mr. Woody and the USO for your presentation and for helping our kids on the bases.  You just don’t know how much it means to us. I cannot thank you enough for your help.

Trevor Romain, Performer, Author & USO Supporter

A Military Family’s Day Trip to Paris

The Conley family (Ashley, Andrew and Shane) at the Eiffel Tower while on a day tour to Paris, arranged by USO Stuttgart in Germany.

Every month it was a different adventure—Luxembourg, Belgium, Italy and France. To Normandy, where nearly 5,000 Americans gave their lives for European freedom. To Belleau Wood, where the Marines earned the nickname “Devil Dogs” during World War II.

High school teacher Ashley Conley and her 4-year-old son, Shayne, made a veritable history lesson out of Europe over the past two years.

As each new Saturday trip approached, her son’s anticipation for the next trip would become palpable.

“Are you ready to see Paris?” Ashley playfully asked her son before a day-trip they took last year.

“Is daddy coming?”

“Yes, baby, he is.”

Shayne’s smile nearly breached his cheeks. His dad, Andrew, is a Sergeant First Class in the Army stationed in Stuttgart, Germany. Occasionally he was home long enough to join Ashley and Shayne on their tours of Europe booked through the USO.

“All I had to do is come prepared with my son, get on the bus at the designated time, sit back and relax,” said Ashley, ”and then ride back on the bus to Stuttgart. The USO takes care of everything.”

The USO “Express Tour” to Paris leaves Germany about midnight and arrives in the French capital around eight the next morning. As the bus pulls into the city, tour guide Jiri begins pointing out places of interest.

“Military Academy is there, Hotel des Invalides is there,” he announced — volume increased — as if to wake his guests gently.

When the bus finally came to a stop, the Conley’s grabbed their subway passes and hit the streets.

Overall, the city was clean but extremely busy, reported Ashley, for both car and pedestrian traffic.

“There weren’t any of the tall buildings that are typical in American cities or even other European cities,” she said. “Really it seemed like the tallest buildings we saw were the landmarks, such as the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and Notre-Dame.”

After walking half way to their first landmark, little Shayne complained he was already tired. His parents knew it would happen, and his dad capitulated early this time.

“C’mon and hop on,” he said, boosting Shayne up to his shoulders. “Where are we going first?”

Shayne pointed to a spot on the map, and the Conley’s headed to the subway, a fairly new experience for Ashley and her son. For Shayne it was like being on a train, the stuff of dreams for a 4-year-old boy.

After grabbing a souvenir for Shayne and taking a family photo at the Eiffel Tower, it was already time to head back to the bus.

“I always have a feeling of disbelief after getting back from one of the USO trips, especially the express trips to another country,” said Ashley. “I just can’t believe that in the course of 24 hours I traveled to another city, in another country, that I previously had only dreamed about.”

It was just what the Conley’s needed right before a seven month deployment.

“We love the USO for helping us capitalize on what liitle family time we get,” said Andrew. “It literally means the world to us.” – By Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

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Supporting Our Wounded Troops

In April 2003, the USO opened a center embedded in the Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility (CASF) at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. The CASF serves as a staging area for wounded, ill and injured troops who are preparing for medevac transport back to the United States for further treatment and rehabilitation and is sometimes the first place these service members are reunited with family.  On average, more than 200 wounded, ill or injured troops come through the doors of the USO center at CASF Ramstein each month and every week the volunteers and staff host 2-3 breakfasts and dinners for base personnel.These meals are served prior to the 9.5-hour flight on a C-17 bound for Walter Reed Military Medical Center back in the U.S. Each week, patients and medical care providers alike join together for a wonderful meal made possible by the fantastic USO staff and volunteers at CASF Ramstein.After enjoying a delicious meal, volunteers and staff hand out pillows and quilts to the servicemen and women to help make their flight home much more comfortable. Thanks to the incredible work at CASF Ramstein, hundreds of our troops have their spirits lifted when they need it most. Thank you for all that you continue to do! – Joseph P. Scannell, USO New Media Intern

March USO Hot Jobs

Probably one of the best moments of my life was when I was offered a job at the USO. Being able spend my days doing what I can to lift the spirits of the troops and their families, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly… it really gives new meaning to the phrase “job satisfaction.”

Interested in working here at the USO yourself? Check out some of the great positions we have available right now:

  • Account Manager – Based in Arlington, VA, the Account Manager will cultivate, analyze, renew and expand relationships with key partners in order to raise revenue and/or in-kind donations that support USO programs and services.
  • Database Administrator – Based in Arlington, VA, the Database Administrator is responsible for database management, data integration, SQL reporting systems and report delivery, and USO business intelligence systems.
  • Director of Operations – Based in Okinawa, Japan, the Director of Operations will be responsible for operational leadership, direction and management of multiple financially viable, self-sustaining USO operations within the Pacific geographic region.
  • IT Coordinator – A part-time position based in Germany, the Information Technology Coordinator will work with and assist the USO Europe IT Systems Manager in monitoring, managing and maintaining the IT systems for USO centers located throughout the European Region.

You can learn more about these and other great opportunities to make a difference at USO.org/Careers. Maybe I’ll be seeing you soon! – Vyque Elessar, USO Director of New Media

A New Home

Once I started working for the USO my friends in the service began sending me text messages whenever they stopped by   a USO Center.  Usually they are just passing through an airport and only have  time to grab a cup of coffee, but the texts usually read something like “volunteers were so friendly!” or “everyone was so helpful, tell them thank you!”.  Having visited many centers through my work with the USO, this never comes as a surprise.  Our volunteers and staff are known for providing outstanding service to our nation’s men and women in uniform and their families.  Yet, on a recent trip alongside a military family, I had the opportunity to witness first-hand how our centers go above and beyond to make America’s heroes feel at home wherever they are.

The Harris family gets a look around after being greeted by Ty Pennington as the Extreme Makeover Home Edition provides a house for the Shilo Harris family outside of Floresville, Texas on January 21, 2012. Photo: Express-News, TOM REEL / © 2012

The Texas family of four was traveling to Germany as part of a special Extreme Makeover: Home Edition that will air later this year.  The mother works as an Army advocate for wounded service members and the father is an Iraq war veteran with burns covering 60% of his body.  As a result of his injuries, the father tires easily and has problems regulating body temperature which makes traveling across multiple time zones and varying climates challenging, especially with a two year old son and nine year old daughter in tow.

As part of the television production we were treated to many amazing sights, smells and tastes that Germany has to offer.  Yet, where I saw the family the happiest and most comfortable, was the final day spent at the USO Warrior Center located adjacent to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center (LRMC).  With a fire “burning” in the fireplace (it’s a faux fireplace), a movie playing, spaghetti cooking on the stove, garlic bread in the oven and homemade carrot cake being cut on the counter, it felt like home.  The staff and volunteers immediately embraced the family, enlisting the daughter’s help to serve spaghetti and swapping Army wife stories with mom.

The family knew several people at the center as the father had been treated at LRMC following the IED explosion that wounded him in Iraq.  Yet, being in the room, you would have thought you had walked in on a family reunion.   That is what the USO does.  Whether you are in a USO Center in Europe, the Pacific, Afghanistan or the states, the USO creates an atmosphere of home, inclusion and support for our nation’s heroes and their families.  Thank you, USO team – especially USO Georgia and USO San Antonio, for making this family’s journey truly a special one. - Andrea Sok, USO Communications Manager