Our Youngest Donor Ever? 1-Year-Old’s Birthday Celebration Raises Funds to Buy In-Kind Snacks for Troops at USO Osan

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A birthday is a great reason to celebrate — and give back.

That’s exactly why Cherie and Air Force Capt. James Bell, parents of Collette Cruz Bell, decided to ask for donations to USO Osan in lieu of presents at their daughter’s first birthday. The Bells, who live on Osan Air Base, South Korea, raised nearly $100 to donate in Collette’s name, making her one of the youngest USO donors ever.

“My husband and I feel very blessed in that we are able to adequately feed and clothe our daughter,” Cherie Bell wrote in an email interview. “Consequently we thought that donations to the USO would be much better utilized than gifts for her first birthday.”

“We also wanted her to be able to have the memory later on of doing some great for others so that she will hopefully learn the joy in giving.”

Collette’s parents took the money and made an in-kind donation to USO Osan in the form of snacks, drinks and food for troops and their families to enjoy — something the Bell family knows will be appreciated.

“My husband and I have spent countless hours enjoying USO locations in airports and military installations,” Bell wrote. “Donating to the USO was our way of expressing gratitude to an organization that has always been there for us while also teaching our daughter a valuable lesson about giving.”

In addition to asking for donations to the USO for their daughter’s big day, the Bells threw a “Despicable Me”-themed barbecue for their friends, complete with a special banana-and-applesauce cake for Collette. The Bells also made a family trip to the beach as part of the birthday festivities.

Joan Rivers, the San Diego Padres and a Soaked 5K: A Look at USO Events Around The Globe

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As the summer draws to a close, USO centers around the world were busy hosting events to lift the spirits of troops and their families. Here’s a look at a few of the fantastic moments from USO centers around the world:

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Joan Rivers visits USO Denver. USO photo.

Joan Rivers Makes Surprise Visit to USO Denver
Long-time USO supporter Joan Rivers paid a surprise visit to USO Denver last Wednesday morning and made sure each guest, volunteer and staff member knew how much she appreciated them. Rivers was the 2001 USO of Metropolitan New York’s Woman of the Year.

“Thank you for your service,” Rivers told the group.

Military Kids Hit the Field at the Be a San Diego Padre for a Day Event
The USO partnered with Petco Park and the Padres to give military kids a Major League experience. Several local kids from military families spent the day practicing baseball fundamentals, talking with former Padre Damian Jackson and learning all about what it would be like to be a Major League Baseball player. Check out the video from the event here.

Sixth Annual Clark After Dark in Chicago
The USO of Illinois took to the streets Thursday night for its sixth annual Clark After Dark block party. Thanks to the support of Alderman Brendan Reilly of the 42nd Ward, Boss Bar and other USO partners, partygoers enjoyed live music, military vehicle displays and plenty of food. Despite the rainy weather, Chicagoans came out in full force to support their troops and show appreciation.

Heidi Murkoff smiles with an expectant military mother. USO photo.

Heidi Murkoff smiles with an expectant military mother. USO photo.

USO/What to Expect Special Delivery Baby Shower in Fort Drum, New York
On Friday, the USO and the What to Expect Foundation, founded by best-selling author Heidi Murkoff, delivered a special baby shower to expecting military spouses and service women stationed in Fort Drum, New York. The moms-to-be enjoyed an afternoon filled with shower games, food, a raffle and a question-and-answer session with Murkoff, who wrote the best-selling book “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.”

Second Annual H2GO in Okinawa, Japan
There aren’t many stickier places on the planet than the South Pacific in the summer, where near-100-degree temperatures are coupled with crippling humidity. To help troops and their families stationed in Okinawa beat the heat and stay in shape, volunteers at USO Kadena created H2GO, a 5K foot race with water-themed obstacles along the route.

The H2GO race let participants enjoy slip-n-slides, water cannons and the soaking power of over 20,000 water balloons.

Girls show off their nails and face paintings at Sun and Fun day with Kaiserslautern USO. USO photo.

Girls show off their nails and face paintings at Sun and Fun day with USO Kaiserslautern. USO photo.

Sixth Annual Sun and Fun Day in Kaiserslautern, Germany
As the dog days of summer come to an end, Kaiserslautern USO and TKS hosted the sixth annual Sun and Fun Day for troops and their families to help them enjoy the last of the warm weather. Despite some rain, over 2,300 visitors came out to enjoy the five-hour event that included food, raffles, live music and search-and-rescue dog demos.

Troops Get Their Game on at Camp Buehring Volleyball Tournament
Service members rallied their way to victory at a volleyball tournament Saturday night in Camp Buehring, Kuwait. Troops were able to form teams of six and compete for prizes — all while jamming out to the beats of DJ Break One. The winning teams were even awarded victory T-shirts!

USO Northwest Steps Up to Support Washington Mudslide Rescue Effort

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It’s been a month since the mudslide disaster in Oso, Wash., claimed 39 lives and shattered even more families – many with loved ones still to be recovered.

The loss of Navy Cmdr. John Regelbrugge III of the USS John C. Stennis and Chief Petty Officer Billy L. Spillers stationed at Naval Station Everett brought the mudslide to the military community’s doorstep.

During the emergency, USO Northwest rallied to assist the recovery team and the National Guard. USO Northwest’s Seattle-Tacoma Airport Center and its Shali Center on Joint Base Louis-McChord sent much-needed supplies to those helping with the cleanup.

On April 1, Girl Scout Cookies collected and stored at the Shali Center were loaded into vehicles for the Washington Army National Guard J9 unit. The unit is responsible for deployment cycle support, family readiness and overall service member and family well-being.

“I had been thinking all morning about how nice it would be if some of the cookies could go to the National Guard troops helping out at the Oso landslide,” said USO volunteer Herb Schmelling. “So I was truly delighted when representatives of the WANG J9 arrived to pick up cookies for the Oso troops.”

The SeaTac USO center has donated 10 25-pound bags of coffee, 21 boxes of energy bars and 1,000 candy bars to the National Guard troops assisting in the recovery.

“We will continue to help the recovery team and our military community with anything they need,” USO SeaTac Center Manager Bill Baker said.

–Meaghan Cox, USO Northwest

Legendary Dad: How Online Gaming Brought One Marine Family Closer Together

Today, troops and families around the world come together with video games – many of them at USO centers. But that wasn’t always the case. USO Staff Writer Joseph Andrew Lee remembers the beginning of online console gaming– and how it brought him closer to his family despite being stationed half a world away:

When I visit my parents’ house, the first thing I hear when I walk through the door is a face-melting guitar solo followed by a string of heavy machine gun fire.

No, I’m not an Osbourne or a Schwarzenegger. My parents are online gamers. My father is well known (and feared) across the spectrum of first-person shooters, while my mother is known to snap-kick like Steven Tyler when she heats up on a Guitar Hero riff.

For years now, the living room gaming console has made my parents’ house a home. It’s not just a toy. For them, it’s a fountain of youth.

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Tommy Lee aka Legendary Dad, can be seen on Skype while playing Battlefield 3 against his son, Joe Lee just last week. USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

As a teenager, “Goldeneye 007″ was a mainstay on Nintendo 64. In fact, I believe 007 was the first video game my dad ever attempted to master. He would get so angry whenever my brother and I would ambush him. He would ignore the dinner bell for hours until he was able to kill one of the two of us. Then — and only then — was it was time to eat. (Yes, sometimes I was hungry enough to let him win.)

My dad was already in his 50s when I left for boot camp in 1997, so my brother and I give him a lot of credit: He didn’t just play video games with us, but he actually took the time to learn how to set an effective proximity mine and launch an MGL round at just the right angle so it would land directly in someone’s path. Trust me, this takes skill, and is good reason to be impressed. If technology were alive it would have a restraining order against my dad.

When I left home at 17, I probably missed those gaming days the most. Not so much getting blown up by a random grenade, but the trash-talking and hanging out with my family and friends. Keeping my dad up to date on the latest games and watching him become proficient at them was really fun for us. We felt like it kept him young. When my siblings and I left the house, it was sad to think that without us he might grow old and lose track of how to play the newer, more technical games.

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“Goldeneye 007″: A father’s introduction to gaming.

I spent the first two years as a Marine in Okinawa, Japan, and I missed my dad and brother a lot. I could tell they missed me, too, but phone conversations between the boys always felt forced and awkward. Maybe it was just me, but I just never felt it was a guy thing to jabber on the phone about Grandma’s new hip or to describe what I just ate for dinner (pre-Instagram).

In the year 2000, (queue up Conan O’Brien bit) the world was supposed to change dramatically. In most respects it stayed very much the same. In the world of console gaming, however, there were some significant changes taking place.

Two paradigm-shifting consoles hit the ground running in the first few years of the century, and once they got their respective online networks established in 2002, Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network began connecting families like mine.

The PlayStation Network was a free service, so it probably comes as no surprise this was the console of choice for a broke, young, enlisted Marine like me. The first big shooter to come out for the PlayStation Network was a game called SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs.

I was immediately engrossed.

The title was revolutionary in that every copy was packaged with a microphone headset intended to promote in-game communication. But as a perhaps unforeseen byproduct, the headsets created a new communication platform for fathers and sons, brothers and friends. Finally, the men in my family had a way to discuss Grandpa’s colon cancer with dignity — while shooting each other in the face.

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“SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs” became an international family affair for the Lees.

The first of my family to connect online was my brother and me. As an active duty Marine, my skills were valued in this new form of online competition, and as an aspiring Web designer, his skills were also useful. We made friends with other gamers quickly and formed a team (called a “clan” in first-person shooters) named Special Operations Training Group (SOTG). He built out our website and discussion forum while I designed our team’s tactical strategies. At its peak, SOTG had more than 200 adult gamers who played SOCOM daily. Many were active duty military. Some were on my base. Some were veterans assigned to Camp Couch, 1st HOME. Others aspired to be – and eventually became – servicemen and women themselves. All are still my close friends today.

Gaming was a reprieve from military life as well as a direct portal home. Knowing my family and friends were just a power button away lifted my spirits greatly while I was in the service. Before online console gaming, my brother and I spoke once every couple of years. Now we were hanging out daily.

Over the years the games have changed but the bond has stayed the same.

“Goldeneye” turned to “SOCOM” turned to “Battlefield” turned to “Call of Duty,” but I feel comforted knowing that somewhere out there, my dad is virtually mowing down fields of teenage gamers with an arsenal of automatic weapons. Maybe even with a flame-thrower (tear).

My Mom still kicks shoes across the living room, rocking out to Drowning Pool while simultaneously baking a five-layer wedding cake for one of my sister’s friends.

My brother doesn’t play so much these days, but when I have a chance, I still jump online to hang out with (and generally get “pwned” by) my father, whose call sign couldn’t be more accurate.

His name is Legendary Dad. Find him online and he will kill you.

–By Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer (aka SOTG Marine)

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