Milestone: Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families Entertains its 500,000th Military Family Member

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FORT BENNING, Georgia—It’s always a sunny day on Sesame Street. But Friday, Elmo, Cookie Monster and the Muppets had an extra special reason to sing and dance with all their friends: The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families entertained its 500,000th military family member.

“The fact that we hit that particular number is a giant milestone for us,” said Nicole McClendon, tour manager for the USO/Sesame Street Experience for Military Families. “It was just so amazing to be able to work so closely with everyone here at Fort Benning to make this moment so special.”

To commemorate the milestone, Elmo and his Muppet friends posed with the audience for a commemorative photograph after their performance. Audience members also received a special cookie to take home with them in addition to other Sesame Street/USO tour goodies.

“I might have told them that they came from Cookie Monster, but [assured the kids] he didn’t eat them [all] before the show,” McClendon said.

Since 2008, this longest-running annual USO tour has delivered memorable moments to hundreds of thousands of military children and their parents through more than 735 shows at more than 140 military bases in 11 countries.

“Five hundred thousand represents the number of smiles Elmo and Katie have brought to military kids and their families … as the tour has traveled around the world,” USO President and CEO Dr. J.D. Crouch II said in a release. “We thank our friends at Sesame Street for helping to make this possible and we look forward to seeing many more smiling faces as the tour continues its journey.”

Sesame Street / USO Experience for Military Families Cast Members Share Their Favorite Tour Memories

Grover, Cookie Monster, Katie, Elmo, Honker and  Rosita sing and dance for service members and their kids during The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families which kicked off April 7, 2012 at Scott Air Force Base. (USO photo by Fred Greaves)

Grover, Cookie Monster, Katie, Elmo, Honker and Rosita entertain service members and their kids during The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families on April 7, 2012 at Scott Air Force Base. (USO photo by Fred Greaves)

Since 2008, the Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families tour has made unforgettable memories for military children and their families all around the world. The longest-running annual USO tour has delivered moments to hundreds of thousands of military children and their parents through more than 735 shows at more than 144 military bases in 11 countries.

In the spirit of the USO’s Every Moment Counts campaign — and in preparation for entertaining the tour’s 500,000th audience member — members of the 2014 cast and crew shares some their favorite Sesame Street/USO Experience memories.

Here’s just a small sample of the amazing stories they had to tell:

“My favorite moment actually happened in Spain. … A little girl came up, she gave me a picture to give to Elmo. I brought it backstage, gave it to Elmo, and the picture said, ‘Thank you Elmo for coming all the way across the sea to Spain, just to see me.’ And I think it really brought home exactly how important it is for these kids to see this show.” — Stephanie Harmon, performance director

“I have many favorite moments, but one that happens every single day [is] when hundreds of kids and parents walk out with huge smiles on their faces, holding onto their Elmo spinning lights, telling me how much they enjoyed the show, and they constantly say thank you to me. Its a stream of ‘thank you’s. And since I think the show is our way of saying thank you to those same military families, it’s great to just get that cycle of thank you.” — Nicole McClendon, tour manager

Want to learn more about the Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families or see if a show is coming near you? Find out more here.

Video: USO Officially Opens Revamped Center at Boston Logan International Airport

BOSTON–The USO has had an active presence at Boston Logan International Airport for over 30 years, so when it came time for the airport to renovate, it allowed the USO to relocate and design a larger space to accommodate the needs of traveling service members.

“We are proud to be able to provide the USO with this new, larger space as they continue their important work supporting our troops and their families,” said Edward Freni, Director of Aviation at Massport.

At nearly twice the size of the previous USO space at Logan Airport, the new center is approximately 1,400 square feet and offers a large seating and living room area as well as an expanded refreshment counter, luggage storage space and food and supplies. New amenities include a space for military families traveling with children — which includes hands-on activities, games and reading materials — a recreation room where troops can play video games, board games and card games, and a designated charging area for personal electronic devices.

“At this new USO center, you will get a glimpse of how today’s USO meets the changing needs of a changing military” said Dr. J.D. Crouch II, USO President and CEO. “Most important is that the extra space that will permit our dedicated USO of New England team to accommodate more troops and families at one time.”

10 Ways Military Families can Save Money on Back-to-School Shopping

(DoD photo by Senior Master Sgt. David H. Lipp)

Photo by David H. Lipp/Courtesy of the Department of Defense

August and September mean one thing for kids across America: It’s time to head back to school!

But for many military families living on a tight budget, back-to-school translates into pricey shopping trips and unwanted penny-pinching. Luckily, we scoped the Internet and rounded up 10 tips to help military families save money as their kids get ready to hit the books.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user leecullivan

1. Take advantage of the tax-free weekend (if applicable) in your state. While the participating states and rules vary, you can usually purchase clothing and school supplies up to a certain dollar amount completely tax-free. Check out this list from the Federation of Tax Administrators to see if your state is participating.

2. Wait to buy fashionable gear, like lunch boxes and pencil cases, until a few weeks into school. Chances are, kids will want to buy what ever the latest fad is and you don’t want to end up spending double to make them feel like they fit in with the crowd. (Tip via http://couponing.about.com/od/apparelarticlesnews/a/backtoschool.htm)

3. Commit to packing lunch this year. You can even incorporate the task as part of the post-dinner cleanup. Packing a lunch not only saves bundles over the course of the year, but also allows you to know what’s going into your child’s mouth (for the most part). Here’s some brown-bag lunch ideas to get you started. (Tip via http://www.parenting.com/article/10-back-to-school-shopping-tips-that-save-money)

(via Flickr Creative Commons user  crossettlibrary)

Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user crossettlibrary

4. Scope out coupon websites and newspaper ads before you head to the store. Although clipping coupons or searching the Web for discounts seems tedious, the savings each provides really adds up. While newspaper coupons vary by location, we found six coupon websites and blogs that should help you save on your next big shopping trip:

5. Host a hand-me-down party and swap clothes and supplies with friends. This is a great way to recycle gently used school supplies, clothes, backpacks and shoes that your kiddos might have grown out of over the past year. Invite friends with children who are younger and older, and ask them to bring a bag of their gently used hand-me-downs to trade with other partygoers. You can donate any leftover items after the party. (Tip via http://www.parenting.com/article/10-back-to-school-shopping-tips-that-save-money)

6. Recycle “grown up” office supplies lying around the house by letting the kids decorate them. Before you head to the store, take a look at what office supplies you might already have. Then, let kids unleash their creative energy by adding drawings, photos and other trinkets to folders, binders and pencil cases that might be lying around the house unused. (Tip via  http://couponing.about.com/od/apparelarticlesnews/a/backtoschool.htm)

(via Flickr Creative Commons user Melissa Collins)

Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user Melissa Collins

7. Buy school supplies for the entire year now. You won’t see these low, back-to-school prices again until this time next year. (Tip via http://everydaysavvy.com/back-to-school-savings-tips-and-sale-information/ )

8. Aim for durability. While better quality brands might be pricier up front, many of these products will last longer, saving you money in the long run. (Tip via http://everydaysavvy.com/back-to-school-savings-tips-and-sale-information/ )

9. Look for deals at garage sales and on Craigslist. People are constantly selling gently used clothes, office supplies and even furniture at garage sales and on Craigslist. You’ll never know what deals you can find. (Tip via http://www.parenting.com/article/10-back-to-school-shopping-tips-that-save-money)

10. Plan a trip to your local outlet mall. This is a great way to stock up on brand name clothes for the school year. Keep winter clothes in mind when you’re shopping as well.

Teeing Up Military Kids for Success: Lockheed Martin Volunteers Help Quicken Loans National Golf Tournament Attendees Build Deployment Kits

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BETHESDA, Md.–When children are faced with a parent’s deployment — or worse, a parent who doesn’t return from deployment — they encounter emotions which may be difficult to express.

Understanding this, volunteers from Lockheed Martin are helping Quicken Loans National spectators at Congressional Country Club — including many military families — assemble hundreds of With You all The Way Deployment Kits for military children this week.

The USO — in partnership with the Trevor Romain Company and the Comfort Crew for Military Kids — uses the With You All the Way program to support children ages 6 to 18 tackling difficult issues unique to growing up in a military family.

The unique kit helps children deal with deployment challenges and even establishes valuable knowledge for the reintegration process.

“This is just a great cause, and it’s so awesome to see kids — a lot of military kids, in fact, but others as well — coming in to pack deployment kits for other kids,” said Laura Stewart of Lockheed Martin. Stewart is one of many Lockheed Martin volunteers staffing the USO deployment kit assembly tent this week at the Quicken Loan National.

The deployment kit is centered around the “With You All the Way! Dealing With Deployment” DVD, which was created as a collaboration between The Comfort Crew and the USO. The Comfort Crew was founded by humorist Trevor Romain, who frequently tours with the USO, sharing life lessons with military children such as how to deal with bullies, facing fears, coping with separation and understanding grief.

“I am a full-on supporter of the USO and what they do for military families,” said Marine Staff Sgt. Tyler Barnes, a military caddy who helped construct a deployment kit Wednesday. “I’ve seen all of the support here at home and downrange. It’s just a great organization and they do a lot of great stuff for the military.”

The deployment kits include:

  • The animated “With You All the Way! Dealing with Deployment” DVD
  • A guided writing journal with prompts, calendar, map, and activities
  • The “With You All The Way! Dealing With Deployment Family Guidebook
  • A set of 10 postcards featuring original artwork by Romain
  • Cuzzie, a plush bear for military kids
  • A pair of imprinted dog tags to share with a deploying parent

Your USO At Work: June 2014 — Deployed Dad Surprises Son With Video at Graduation

Pedro Cruz III watches a video message from his father on iPad moments after graduating from New York University on May 23. Cruz’s father, New York Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Pedro Cruz Jr., is deployed to Kuwait and was unable to attend the ceremony, but he worked with the USO to figure out how he could be the first to congratulate his son. NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering photo by Elena Olivo

Pedro Cruz III watches a video message from his father on iPad moments after graduating from New York University on May 23. Cruz’s father, New York Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Pedro Cruz Jr., is deployed to Kuwait and was unable to attend the ceremony, but he worked with the USO to figure out how he could be the first to congratulate his son. NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering photo by Elena Olivo

USO Helps Deployed Father Send Surprise Message to Son at Graduation 

Pedro Cruz III wasn’t sure why the television cameras were approaching.

A moment earlier, he’d walked across the stage at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, to receive his construction management degree from the New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering. When he reached the dean, Cruz was handed his diploma along with an iPad Air, a plaque and a folded American flag.

As his classmates streamed across the stage behind him, the camera lights flicked on and reporters encircled the new graduate. Then he looked down at the iPad – queued up to a video of his deployed father – and pressed play.

“Hey son, surprise,” New York Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Pedro Cruz Jr. said in a pre-recorded video. “Right about now you should be on stage picking up your degree. I wanted to be the first to congratulate you on this special day.”

Shortly thereafter, the younger Cruz was talking to his father – like he does almost every day – reliving the moment.

“I think he called me before he even got back to his seat,” Cruz Jr. said in an email exchange with the USO. “I don’t think he could have gotten a better finale for this day.”

The elder Cruz knew when he deployed to Kuwait that he wouldn’t be in New York to see his only son walk across the stage on May 23. After some consideration, he approached USO Camp Buehring’s Jason Lewis about coordinating a graduation surprise to let his son know he was there in spirit. A week later, USO Camp Buehring center manager Tiffany Banks emailed Cruz Jr. and they started to formulate a plan.

“He wanted to do something special for his son, and the first place that he’d gone … was to the USO,” Banks said the day before the ceremony took place. “I’d gotten in contact with the graduation coordinator for NYU to see what we could do.”

One father’s gesture turned into a national story, as Cruz III smiled for the New York media and talked about what it meant to get a message from his dad on one of the biggest days of his young life.

“I was confused and had a feeling it may involve him,” Cruz III said in an email interview with the USO. “It was awesome. I was overjoyed.”

“To see the Joy on his face [in the photos taken at the graduation] is priceless,” Cruz Jr. wrote. “I find myself sometimes still [staring] at the pictures.”

 Volunteers, Sponsors and Celebrities Help the USO Make Dreams Come True for Military Teens

When fashion designer Sherri Hill donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in prom dresses to military teens, volunteers and sponsors from around the nation stepped up to make the event as special as possible. How many exactly?

Fashion designer Sherri Hill, left, “Duck Dynasty” star Sadie Robertson and hundreds of others helped make the USO’s Operation That’s My Dress a huge success for military teens. USO photo by Matthew Ziegler

Fashion designer Sherri Hill, left, “Duck Dynasty” star Sadie Robertson and hundreds of others helped make the USO’s Operation That’s My Dress a huge success for military teens. USO photo by Matthew Ziegler

Two hundred seventy-two volunteers donated 4,294 hours of their time and dozens of sponsors donated goods, services and cash totaling $750,000 to make the New York City version of USO Operation: That’s My Dress a huge success.

Forty-five Miss USA and Miss Teen USA contestants flew into Manhattan on their own dime to model the dresses in a runway show produced by the USO and TAJ Events with music by celebrity DJ Marlon Bizzy. The models also served as stylists, assisting teens in picking out the perfect prom dress and fashion jewelry.

Fourteen celebrities carved time out of their schedules to make appearances, including Sadie and Korie Robertson from “Duck Dynasty” and the reigning Miss USA Erin Brady. A dozen hair stylists and makeup artists from L’Oreal USA and jewelry donations from Fashion Delivers helped the teens glow and glitter.

And of course there was Hill, who has been part of every USO Operation: That’s My Dress to date and has donated more than $1 million in apparel for the events.

“It means a lot to be able to make this many girls happy,” said Hill. “Prom is a special moment for any girl. To be able to help make moments like this for hundreds of military teens is amazing to see – their eyes just light up when they find that perfect dress.”

Show your support for our military members and their families by visiting USOmoments.org.

Coca-Cola and the USO Honor Fallen, Celebrate Service at NASCAR Race

The USO teamed up with NASCAR at the Coca-Cola 600 to unfurl something big over Memorial Day weekend.

“That something big is [our goal] to break the Guinness World Record for the number of signatures on a flag,” said John Falkenbury, President of the USO of North Carolina.

Service members unfurl a section of the USO’s Every Moment Counts flag before the start of the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, North Carolina, in May. USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

Service members unfurl a section of the USO’s Every Moment Counts flag before the start of the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, North Carolina, in May. USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

The USO has a long tradition of working with Charlotte Motor Speedway and Speedway Motorsports, Inc. to bring troops out to the track for the race, which is sponsored by USO Presidents Circle Partner Coca-Cola. All told, more than 1,200 troops and their families were honored at the race. Most received free tickets and the USO of North Carolina helped them travel from their bases to the track for the exciting weekend event.

“This is a time that brings America together,” said Falkenbury. “All walks of life, all colors, all creeds, to do one thing—salute America—because at the end of the day … we are there making every moment count.”

After a free concert by country music star and USO tour veteran Brantley Gilbert, more than 120 service members unfurled the center of the USO’s Every Moment Counts flag on the infield during the national anthem. Earlier, troops, race fans and NASCAR drivers offered their support in the form of a signature on the flag.

“Over the years, Charlotte Motor Speedway has set the standard when it comes to showing our support of the armed forces,” Marcus Smith, president and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway,  said in a NASCAR press release. “We want to give all the men and women who have served in the past and who continue to fight for our freedom today a great big bear hug and let them know how much their service means to our country.”

USO and Full Circle Home Pack Surprises for Mother’s Day at VP Residence

The USO and Full Circle Home joined forces in May to pack 2,000 Mother’s Day boxes for military moms, wives and special women in the lives of deployed troops. Dr. Jill Biden, co-founder of Joining Forces and wife of Vice President Joe Biden, welcomed USO volunteers and spouses of congressional and senior military leaders to her home to put the packages together.

“We wanted to make sure that all these brave men and women and their families know that we all recognize the sacrifices they made,” Dr. Biden said.

The boxes, delivered in time for Mother’s Day, were filled with items like lotions, flower seeds and a necklace, in addition to a personalized note from their deployed service member.

“Most of the moms and loved ones who are staying at home are always geared towards sending the care packages to their loved ones wherever they’re deployed around the world,” said USO President and retired Air Force Brig. Gen. John I. Pray, Jr. “It’s really great for them to have an opportunity to get something from their [deployed] loved one.”

Since the inaugural Mother’s Day Service Project in 2012, the USO and Full Circle Home have distributed more than 3,500 gift boxes that create memorable moments for deployed troops and their families.

BIC Honors the USO With $1M Donation

On March 31, BIC Consumer Products USA presented the USO with a $1 million donation during a ceremony at the new USO Warrior and Family Center on Naval Support Activity Bethesda, Maryland, home of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

BIC’s generous contribution is a result of a 9-cent donation from the sale of each of its “Support the Troops” series lighters and the donation will be applied towards the center’s outdoor grilling area.

“To see that the sales of this special edition series of BIC lighters, whose designs honor America’s troops, have helped to provide an opportunity where our military personnel … can take a moment to relax and enjoy quality time barbequing with their loved ones, is incredibly moving,” noted Chris Mills, President of BIC Consumer Products North America.

In addition to serving active-duty troops, the USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda will provide a home away from home where wounded, ill and injured troops can heal with honor.

 Commitment to Service Drives USO’s Matthews

As a former officer in Britain’s Royal Air Force, Jonathan Matthews understands what it means to serve. Since 2006, the former intelligence analyst and pilot has continued serving through his work with the USO.

Jonathan Matthews, the USO’s director of logistics & facilities. USO photo

Jonathan Matthews, the USO’s director of logistics & facilities. USO photo

“Volunteering and working for USO has been the only experience, other than serving in the military, where I’ve been able to instantly witness the results of my efforts improving the lives of others,” said Matthews, who started his USO career as a volunteer at Camp Virginia in Kuwait in 2006.

With professional experience in construction and brick masonry, Matthews helped USO staff members build the Camp Virginia center and was soon compelled to join the organization full time.

“During my volunteerism in Kuwait I was working for a military contractor, delivering the Army’s [morale, welfare and recreation] function, but I was able to have more interaction with and contribute to the welfare of the [troops] through the USO, so I wanted to continue that positive impact.”

In 2007, Matthews was hired as a programs manager at Camp Buehring, Kuwait, and is now the director of logistics & facilities for USO and works at our headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. He’s been fortunate to visit many centers around the world and he’s noticed a common thread shared by each location.

“In my mind, all USO Centers, staff and volunteers worldwide deliver on the same promise but possess their own unique way of supporting deployed and transitioning troops, their families, the wounded, ill, and injured and families of the fallen.”