USO Center at Wright-Patt pivots to keep fulfilling mission

Gina Franz, operations specialist at the USO Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, prepares coronavirus care packages March 19 to delivered to the 88th Medical Group. (Contributed photo)
Gina Franz, operations specialist at the USO Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, prepares coronavirus care packages March 19 to delivered to the 88th Medical Group. (Contributed photo)

Under normal circumstances, the United Service Organizations of Central and Southern Ohio Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base provides support to about 4,000 military members and their families per month — that is more than 40,000 people a year.

Wright-Patt’s USO Center boasts a busy café, an Airman’s Attic, a game room, multiple computer stations, a large auditorium and several conference rooms. The café is a popular spot for military members and families to enjoy snacks and relax. The computers in the center help to keep military members connected to family, home and country, and the game room enjoys a steady flow of gamers who divide their time between the Xbox and the ping-pong table.

The facility is always hopping as military organizations across Wright-Patt reserve the various spaces to meet, study, honor and celebrate heroes. The Airman’s Attic receives donations of clothing and household items that are in turn made available to junior enlisted service members who need them.

The USO Center is, in short, a central part of the Wright-Patt military community, providing support to active-duty, Guard and Reserve military members and their families. This enterprise is operated by more than 100 volunteers who donate their time and talent. The center’s two paid staff members on duty are Erik Oberg, manager, and Gina Franz, center operations specialist.

The arrival of COVID-19 caused the suspension of normal operations on March 15, but the USO Center has been busier than ever doing everything possible to boost the morale, strength and wellness of service members and their families during the pandemic.

The list of outreach projects is a long one, Oberg said.

“There has never been a shortage of things to do and support to offer,” he said. “The USO’s mission has never been more relevant. All around the world, the USO is working really hard to pivot our programs to serve our service members and our families that are more isolated due to COVID-19.”

Where once the center was a gathering place, it has now become a hub for outreach programs. Center staff and volunteers have delivered hundreds of “corona care” packages filled with snacks and beverages to organizations across the base, including the 88th Medical Group, 88th Security Forces Squadron, National Air and Space Intelligence Center, 445th Airlift Wing, the Incident Command Center, COVID testing site and Airmen dormitories.

The care package delivery outreach has extended to include Airmen living in quarantine and those getting ready to deploy.

“Service members cannot come to the USO, so the USO is going to them,” Oberg said. “Everything has been so well received and appreciated, and we have been challenged to do things differently. We are very proud of that.

“We have been really busy, but it is gratifying because we’ve found ways to make a positive impact during a difficult time,” he continued.

People often focus on the support the USO delivers to service members on the front lines, Oberg said.

“Especially in the early days of COVID-19, we knew we had personnel right here at Wright-Patterson on the front lines of dealing with this challenge,” he added.

Support for families continues as well. The Wright-Patt USO Center has staged multiple drive-thru events. Families have enjoyed “take-n-bake” pizza pick-ups and barbeque dinners. The USO has been able to offer these “Serving Heroes” meals, thanks to funding from the Gary Sinise Foundation.

A silver lining to the USO Center’s new way of operating is how many people it can accommodate for a meal.

“Typically, during a ‘Serving Heroes’ dinner, we can fit 150 people, or 35 families, in our auditorium. With our drive-thru events, we’ve been able to serve 100 families,” Oberg said. “It’s been one of the unexpected things that has happened – because we’ve been staging these events outside, we aren’t constrained by our room capacity limitations. It’s been exciting for us to feed so many more families.”

Volunteers also have distributed activity bags for children to help them celebrate Earth Day on April 22, summer camping and Independence Day. The out-of-the-house activities during the pandemic have provided huge boosts to morale. More than 1,500 service members and family members have benefited from these dinners and programs.

The base’s Dorm Council asked the USO to support an event for dormitory residents as well. After much coordination, the USO was excited to support a fun, coronavirus-cautious event in partnership with the Air Force Chaplain Corps. The May 23 event, whimsically titled “Grub and Grow,” provided dorm residents the opportunity to get outside in the sunshine, enjoy a meal from a Hawaiian food truck, visit with chaplains in the “Hopes and Prayers” tent, score some Girl Scout cookies, and get potting materials and seeds to make a DIY planter.

The Wright-Patt USO has also supported the base community in smaller-scale efforts, too. In “Operation Birthday Cake,” the USO delivered a cake to an Airman on March 31 on behalf of a mom who couldn’t be present due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Though closed to the public, the center provided a haven for an Air Force Institute of Technology student and father of six children, who needed a quiet place to focus on his now-online-only, classes.

The Airman’s Attic manager ran a “front porch pickup” of puzzles in which families were able to claim donated puzzles via the Attic’s Facebook page and then pick them up at the front door of the USO Center building.

USO volunteers passed out refreshments to participants of the Airman’s Fight Against Social Injustice and For Diversity Inclusion 5K Ruck March on July 10. The center also provided ice cream to the National Airborne Operations Center when the aircraft made a visit to the base.

These are among the many ways the WPAFB USO continues to fulfill its morale-boosting mission during the pandemic.

Contingent upon the approval of base and public health leadership, the USO hopes to reopen Wright-Patt’s USO Center soon under phase one restrictions.

“The USO is the “Force behind the Forces” and this force is strong and successful due to committed volunteers, creative staff members and supportive donors,” Oberg said.

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