Local USO stands as beacon for military families
by Staff Writer
by Allison Futterman
An 18-year-old on his way to basic training, a veteran soldier on her way home from a lengthy, dangerous deployment; a young military wife trying to rejoin her husband from Japan after being evacuated back to the U.S. following the tsunami.
Though all three have different thoughts to preoccupy them as they work to get through their missions, one thing remains the same for each: the help they get at the local USO branch.
Located on the second floor of Charlotte-Douglas International Airport and established in 2006, the USO Center is available to all military members and families, be they active duty, reserve, national guard, retired military personal or military dependants. The center is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, 365 days a year, serving more than 8,500 people each month. They do it all only with corporate and individual donations, with a full-time staff of three, getting no government national USO funding.
That’s where the more than 200 volunteers come in, working an average of one, three-hour shift per week. They help provide the creature comforts like food and drink, Internet access and television. The office has a family area with games and toys for those travelling with children and a phone center where free calls can be made to anywhere in the United States.
Volunteers and staff forge intense human connections with those they serve. The time they spend together may be short, but meaningful.
“There is no typical day,” said center Director Megan Grady. Fellow Charlotte resident and center assistant director Barbara Hutchens agrees. After working a full day, Grady and Hutchens will often discuss plans and goals at night for the next day.
“Megan and I will have a list of things we plan to do and then when we get in the next day, things have changed,” Hutchens said. “You have to be adaptable.”
The ladies have a “whatever it takes” attitude when it comes to serving USO visitors. Yet, they modestly deflect any praise or credit and emphasize it’s really “all about our incredible volunteers.”
And the work for those volunteers can range from the easy to the extreme. Whether it is a grieving family member or travel-weary soldier, those who work at the center are adept at knowing when and how to approach a visitor.
One of the most important services provided by the USO is the Honor Support Team. The volunteer group provides planeside military honors to deceased service members passing through Charlotte, ensuring no fallen service member is ever left unattended along their final journey home.
“It can be mentally and emotionally exhausting for our volunteers,” Hutchens said, adding that they are motivated by the shared purpose of “giving back.”
One volunteer, Waxhaw resident Betty Knebel, has been a part of the Charlotte USO since it first opened. She loves greeting service members when they come in. She will generally give them a hug, take their bags and ask them if there is anything she can do for them.
Knebel’s giving spirit doesn’t end when she leaves the center. She often writes to members of the military who would otherwise be without someone to keep in contact with. She feels what she does is “so small compared to what they do,” and treats them “the way she would want someone to treat her son.”
Hutchens, a mother of six adult children, including two sons active in the military, has first-hand experience of what it’s like to have a loved one on deployment and its challenges.
Although the work can be extremely stressful, Grady, a mom of two toddlers, focuses on the positive effect the center makes and truly feels “it’s an honor to do what we do.”
Judging by some of the remarks in the guest book at the USO troops and their families can sign, families are thankful for hospitality they received. Recent comments include: “This is the nicest USO we’ve been to and are very impressed with your facilities and staff. You are making a difference and it is appreciated!” and “This USO is great and made a long trip home from Afghanistan much better.Thank you for the support, your time and efforts.”
For more information about the Charlotte USO, call 704-359-5581 or visit the center online at www.uso-nc.org or www.facebook.com/USOofNC.