Moms Find Another Way to Give Back at USO

We’ll all be thinking of, calling and thanking our mothers Sunday.

But that doesn’t mean they’re taking the day off.

Hundreds of moms will be clocking in volunteer hours at USO centers across the globe this Mother’s Day. Some do it as a hobby. Others out of a sense of duty. And some give countless hours at USO centers to repay the treatment given to their families.

Here are the stories of two such volunteers – Pam Horton and Michelle Bajakian – in their own words:

Pam Horton, USO of North Carolina volunteer

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USO of North Carolina volunteer Pam Horton

My dad was career Army. I was raised to be patriotic, to have a strong sense of pride and love for our country. I still get choked up when I hear the national anthem! My dad retired when I was 16. Thirty-five years later, my youngest son enlisted in the Army.

We moved to Apex, N.C., just as our son finished up his training. He had been assigned to a unit that was already deployed!  We were at [Raleigh Durham International Airport] putting him on the plane, knowing we wouldn’t see him again until he returned home from Afghanistan, when we were approached by a woman from the USO. She thanked him for his service, thanked us for our sacrifice, told us about the USO center, asked if she could give him any snacks to take on the plane, thanked us again and went on her way. After my eyes stopped dripping, I thought, ‘I can do THAT!’ and went in search of her.

I enjoy talking with the people that come through the center, to find out where they’ve been, or where they’re headed. I try to be upbeat and chatty, to help pass the time for them. I’ve even learned to play a mean game of Crazy Eights! Sometimes, they don’t want to talk, so I respectfully give them their privacy. It’s all about making them comfortable and happy while they are in the center.

I thoroughly love that I can help ease the minds of moms who come into the Center with their children who are about to go to basic [training] or deploy. …

It sure sounds like I volunteer for me, doesn’t it?  It helps that I enjoy it, but it really is all about our military and their families. They sacrifice for us and we should show our appreciation for that.

Michele Bajakian, USO Fort Drum volunteer

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USO Fort Drum volunteer Michele Bajakian

“There are a lot of good reasons to volunteer with an organization like the USO, but I am a volunteer today because four years ago, the USO was there for my family when we needed them the most.

My husband was deployed to Afghanistan while we were living in Germany. I took my two children, who were 9 and 11 years old at the time, to visit their grandparents in Texas. I received a phone call from my husband, saying that he was being medically evacuated to Landstuhl, Germany, because a mass was discovered in his neck.

Needless to say, I was very concerned and needed to get back to Germany fast. One of the flights from Texas was to New Jersey and we spent a sleepless night in their terminal. The next morning, we caught an early flight to Boston and had to wait several hours before our flight to Germany.

The kids and I were exhausted from a sleepless and stressful night. I saw the USO sign in the terminal and I felt so relieved. This was the first time that I had ever entered a USO. The people working at the center were so kind and thoughtful. There was a quiet room there and comfy couches to sleep on. My children and I were able to get some much needed rest and felt ready to continue on our trip after spending time with Boston’s USO.

The two years that followed were pretty tough, but my husband is now in remission from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He is doing so much better now and we have a lot to be thankful for.

Every time I see the USO sign, I think about that trip that my children and I made and who was there waiting for us in Boston four years ago. I completed my training at Fort Drum to become a volunteer [in March] and I am so happy every time I walk into the center. I volunteer for the USO because I want to be there waiting for some other soldier or their family who needs a little extra TLC, a cup of coffee, or a smile.

–Story by USO Story Development

Visit USO Wishbook to give troops a gift for Mother’s Day like a phone call home or a program experience for a family of a wounded, ill or injured service member.

Say It With Flowers

Search for "USO" on the FTD Flowers site to find some extra patriotic gifts!

Search for “USO” on the FTD Flowers site to find some extra patriotic gifts!

This time of year, the most popular USO partner promotion is with FTD Flowers! You’re probably not surprised, but no less delighted to learn of the details: for all of 2013, FTD will be offering customers who visit ftd.com/uso a 20% discount on flowers, plants and gifts AND will donate 5% of the purchase price to the USO.

“We are proud to forge a strong partnership with a wonderful, well-respected organization like the USO,” said Rob Apatoff, president of FTD. “The men and women of the U.S. Military perform an invaluable service to this country and we are proud to support an organization that provides them with so many important services and programs.”

In addition, FTD is delivering 10,000 flowers to USO centers about the country next Friday! The centers will be handing them out to service men and women to keep or give to their own mothers for Mother’s Day.

Thank You for the Memory

Debbie Fink – co-author of “The Little C.H.A.M.P.S – Child Heroes Attached to Military Personnel“ is currently on a USO tour of the Pacific talking to children from military families. Here is a blog post about her trip:

Alas, all momentous memories must come to an “intermission” as they become – memories.

DSC00946 copyOur whirlwind, 26-event Little C.H.A.M.P.S (Child Heroes Attached to Military Personnel) USO Tour through mainland Japan and Okinawa, reaching 6,000+ Champs, is now settling into a monumental memory.

Thank you for the memory bound in classes filing in, singing  their song, “The Little Champs.”  Thank you to DoDEA’s music educators who took the time to teach it.

Thank you for the memory created as we exalted the Champs from each of the five branches, as the USO’s talented Cristin Perry led them singing their branch hymn while I roamed with my fiddle – getting close up and personal.  Each hymn was followed by everyone calling out in voice and American Sign Language (ASL):  “Go [NAVY] Champs!”

Thank you for the memory born as I shared the ‘backstory’ about the Little Champs’ book and song, followed by viewing  the Little Champs YouTube video, linking aural learning with visual learning: 

Thank you for the memory imbedded in reviewing a writer’s Six Golden Questions (Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How);  and answering the questions in our book.  Hats off to our 156 volunteers, dubbed the Golden Questioneers!

Thank you for the memory fixed in my retelling the story’s plot on one foot in the yoga tree pose in ~25 seconds!

Thank you for the memory steeped in introducing each of our book’s characters, branch by branch, giving the Champs ways to “connect” to each character.  Our USMC character Lo even got me cartwheeling again (26x) ~ now that’s quite a memory!

Thank you for the memory set as we addressed the challenge of being on-the-move as Champs, collectively conducting  research identifying the “mode” for the total number of moves made by our Champs thus far.  The overall mode was 3-4 times.  Our Champs became statisticians!

Thank you for the memory rooted as we dug deeper, addressing other challenges faced by Champs:  deployments, injuries/wounds, and homecomings (reintegration).  Thank you to the 234 “Emotioneers;” the Champs who held out the emotions discussed at each event, as we addressed the need to feel and deal with, and identify, our emotions.

Thank you for the memory as we highlighted that it is a Champ’s  right to ask for help; that communication and community are key; and that it is our responsibility, as trusted adults, to respond to their pleas for help.

Thank you for the memory implanted in our emphasis on how each Champs is special, and has a spark.  They loved watching my co-author/songwriter Jen Fink, who was beamed in from the University of Maryland, alongside her oversized bear, delivering her message of gratitude and our “Heart Smart A-B-C Song” (available on OperationChamps.org).

DSC00735Thank you for the memory placed in Champs “finding” their Heart Smart Magnifying Lens, and filling it with virtues – taught in ASL – that they’ve already ‘learned and earned,’ simply by being a Champ:  Worldliness; Honor; Loyalty; Patriotism; Communication and Community; Adaptability and Flexibility; and gobs of our Gratitude for all they do for America.

Thank you for the memory sharing some role playing about positive differences between civilian kids and Champs (e.g., Civilians say ‘Goodbye;’ Champs say ‘Farewell.’”)

Thank you for the memory – hearing ~36 shining singers lead their peers, singing The National Anthem.  The audience stood tall and proud, hands over hearts, reflecting upon how they and their families help keep America ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’ as they sang.

Thank you for the memory – the soaring memories amidst the incredible memories – when we concluded each ‘edu-tainment’ event clapping and singing “The Little Champs” at the top of our lungs, dancing on the tips of our toes, and smiling from ear to ear.  The resounding cheer at the end, the “Go Champs!” – shouted and signed in ASL by all – reverberated ‘round the room, and reverberates in our hearts.

Thank you for the memory – seeing the Champs file out, class by class, with song in their hearts; dance in their steps; pride in their souls; virtues on their mind; and a Little Champs book awaiting their li’l hands.

Thank you for the memory that comes from working with such committed, compassionate, and competent staff and volunteers at both the USO and DoDEA.

With a heartfelt attitude of gratitude to all involved, and especially to our 6,000 shining Champs that currently reside in mainland Japan and Okinawa, I conclude with a quote from Bob Hope’s signature song, “Thank You for the Memory”:  Awfully glad I met you / Cheerio and toodle-oo / Thank you.

To close with “The Little Champs’” signature song, Goodbyes are not forever / Goodbyes are not the end / They simply mean we’ll miss you / Until we meet again!

I’m ready to make more memories!  Go Champs!  Go USO! – Debbie Fink, Author, Edutainer And USO Tour Vet

For more information on the tour, visit:  facebook.com/AuthorDebbieFink or OperationChamps.org

‘Little C.H.A.M.P.S’ Author Fink Shares Stories from USO Tour to Japan

Debbie Fink – co-author of “The Little C.H.A.M.P.S – Child Heroes Attached to Military Personnel” is currently on a USO tour of the Pacific talking to children from military families. Here is a blog post about her trip:

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Author Debbie Fink, center, is on a USO tour in Japan. USO photo

A sandy-haired child scoots out of line after a Little C.H.A.M.P.S event to ask me “But what if I don’t feel any of those emotions ever?”

We had discussed the importance of identifying our emotions. Happy. Sad. Scared. Angry. Worried. Surprised. Embarrassed. Confused. In Denial (with explanation).

Now here’s a Champ who, at the very least, has endured multiple moves and parental deployments and homecomings. And yet he views himself as emotionless.

Anyone who has taken Psychology 101 would recognize that there is some suppression of emotions going on here. I have less than a minute with him to respond before he’s swooped into the exit line.

“Okay. You’re tuning in. Now is a good time to talk about your thoughts with a trusted adult. Keep communicating. You could visit your guidance counselor. I suggest you share with her what you shared with me.”

And he was gone.

Right behind him a bubbly, brown-eyed boy bumped along, saying, “My dad is deploying. Aaaaaagain. Now I know I can tell him that I’m feeling worried. And angry. And scared, too.” I have mere moments to say, “Good! It will help you and your dad to talk about how you’re feeling. Keep communicating.”

And he was gone.

After another performance, a giggly group of girl Champs approached me. The ‘spokesgirl’ said, “We love our ‘Little C.H.A.M.P.S’ song! We listen to it over and over! And your ‘Heart Smart’ song is awesome!” Then their stream of questions tripped over each other: “Did you really write it for your kids? Did you really fix it for us? Was that really your daughter singing? Is it on YouTube? She’s got a pretty voice! So does the USO lady who sang!” Chuckling, I answered, “Yes; yes; yes; not yet, though it’s posted on OperationChamps.org – but ask a parent to look for it with you. And thanks – I’ll tell them you said they have pretty voices!“

And they were gone.

Then there was the Champ who asked quietly as she passed, “Am I really special? Do I really have a spark?” Following my emphatic, reassuring “YES! YES!!” response, she was gone.

A last moment engraved in my soul was the precious li’l Champ who, on her way out, looked at me and said, “Can I hug you?  ‘Cuz I feel like you hugged me!” After our real hug and shared moment, she was gone.

These vignettes capture the li’l hearts and minds of the incredible Champs encountered during our first 10  “edutainment” performances in mainland Japan.   While these Champs came and went, heading back to life-on-the-move, they are emblazoned in my heart forever.

Thanks to the USO and its teamwork with the Department of Defense Education Activity (DODEA), each of the 6,000 Champs we visit in mainland Japan and Okinawa is receiving a copy of “The Little C.H.A.M.P.S” book – a story that celebrates their selfless service and sacrifice, while giving them coping tools that further fortify their resiliency and character.

One overwhelming takeaway is how beyond impressed I am by the exemplary professionals handling all the logistical details that go into planning and executing this Little C.H.A.M.P.S tour. The USO’s stalwart and skillful team in the Pacific and stateside – working alongside DODEA’s dedicated and committed staff and educators – fills me with the greatest admiration and respect. I must also give a shout out to the USO volunteers who have helped behind-the-scenes to make all this happen!

Sixteen performances await us in Okinawa. Circling back to emotions, I’m so happy to be spreading the goodness and gratitude together with the USO and DODEA; and am already so sad to think that soon I will also . . . be gone.

Though, as is sung in “The Little C.H.A.M.P.S” song, “Goodbyes are not forever / goodbyes are not the end / they simply mean we’ll miss you / until we meet again.”  Farewell, Japan’s Champs! Hello, Okinawa’s Champs! Ready or not, here we come!   Go Champs!

–Debbie Fink

Operation C.H.A.M.P.s’ USO Tour Kicks Off in Japan

After a recent reading of her book “The Little C.H.A.M.P.s – Child Heroes Attached to Military Personnel,” author Debbie Fink overheard two fourth grade girls discussing an all-too-familiar story.

Debbie Fink, co-author of “The Little C.H.A.M.P.s – Child Heroes Attached to Military Personnel,” speaks to kids at Fort Meade, Md., on Oct. 25. Fink launched her USO tour in Japan this week. USO Photo by Mike Theiler

One CHAMP asked her civilian classmate what it’s like not having to move all the time. The girl said she liked staying in one place because she could keep the same friends and live in the same house.

The CHAMP admitted she’d never experience anything like that, but quickly found the silver lining, pointing out how excited she is each time she gets to redecorate her room.

With a new understanding of each other, they both agreed to give the book four out of four stars.

“The Little C.H.A.M.P.s” follows the lives of five fictional military children, celebrating their families’ service and sacrifice to our country while showing how they cope with the challenges associated with military life. The book aims to build a bridge of understanding between military kids and their civilian peers.

For the next two weeks, author Debbie Fink will be on a whirlwind tour of Japan and Okinawa “edu-taining” and delivering support and comfort to 6,000 CHAMPS currently living in the Pacific. The USO has teamed with Fink to provide the book free of charge to children in military families in an attempt to prepare them for the ups and downs of life as a dependent.

According to Fink, one of the key drives for the initiative and the inspiration for the book was the Defense Department’s Strengthening our Military Families report. The report says military children in public schools don’t feel like their peers or teachers understand them.

“We have to change that,” Fink said. “We will change that. Child by child, classroom by classroom, school by school, we can make a difference.”

As an Andrews Sisters wannabe (they clocked in 1,000 USO performances supporting our troops), Fink says she can’t think of a greater honor as a civilian than to go on tour with the USO. Fink wants to share some of this momentous experience with readers on Twitter, where they can follow her 25 performances at 13 schools, on Facebook, where they can track her adventures and like her page, and on her blog at OperationCHAMPS.org.

“We hope that by sharing, it will help build a bridge of understanding between our civilian and military worlds,” she said. “We surely owe this — and much more — to our military families.”

–Story by Joseph Andrew Lee, USO staff writer

Project Cinderella

What would military families do without the strength and sacrifice of our military women?

There is no doubt that military women are a large reason why our armed forces are as strong as they are.

To honor these women, USO of Metropolitan Washington hosted its third annual Project Cinderella, an event designed to give military women a day to be pampered. From makeovers by Paul Mitchell to classes on military etiquette and dressing for one’s body, this day long event was packed with ways for military women of all ages to feel empowered and appreciated. For military moms with young daughters, USO-Metro hosted a Shabby Chic Princess Tea Party that included a book reading by Miss Maryland, lunch, arts and crafts, a manners workshop and more. The day was just what military women needed to feel rejuvenated and appreciated for their daily sacrifices. Take a look below to see how much fun everyone had and read more about the event at USO.org.

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You can see even more photos at the Fashion Delivers Facebook page.
Sarah Camille Hipp, Communications Specialist