The USO’s Cleveland affiliate, the USO of Northern Ohio (formerly Cleveland USO), has been delivering hope since its November 1941 inception, only nine months after the national USO assembled in New York City, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt recommended citizens form an organization to take care of the military servicemen’s needs. In response, six existing organizations, the YMCA, YWCA, National Catholic Community Services, National Jewish Welfare Board, the National Travelers Aid Association and the Salvation Army joined forces and instituted the first USO.
The Cleveland USO has always been known for its big heart. “Clevelanders had a reputation for their generosity during the start-up days,” says Berni O’Malley, USO of Northern Ohio treasurer and former executive director. “I’ve worked with so many volunteers from the 1940s, and they always talk about how Clevelanders would bake cookies and go to the train stations to give soldiers a warm send off. And they’d always be there in full force to welcome them home. They’d sew, knit and make things for all the soldiers who were passing through.”
Without a nearby military fort, the closest thing Cleveland has to an active base is the Ninth Coast Guard District of the Cleveland Area. Northeast Ohio has a high concentration of reserves and National Guardsmen who count on a network of family members and friends. Today, about 260 volunteers in 29 counties ranging from Toledo to Ashtabula and as far south as Mansfield, collect supplies, assemble care packages and organize other efforts to help boost morale both overseas and here at home.
The organization didn’t always have such a large coverage area. As Cleveland’s USO kept servicing families living far beyond Cuyahoga County, board members began to push for a larger entity that could generate more profitable fundraising. Hence, in 1986, several satellite USOs merged to become the USO of Northern Ohio and embraced the mission to enhance the quality of life of the men, women and families of the Armed Forces through social, recreational, educational and entertaining programs and services in times of peace as well as during conflict. And their effect on soldiers out in the field as well as on local Cleveland communities has been staggering.
“It doesn’t matter what people think about war, whether they’re for or against a particular war,” says Deb Fisher, USO of Northern Ohio executive director. “Everyone agrees that our soldiers need us to support them. Cleveland is, and has always been, active in organizing efforts to raise morale and ease the burdens of difficult military life. And when you talk with veterans and armed forces family members who’ve been touched by kindness a Cleveland USO volunteer has done, it’s inspiring beyond belief.”
As the face of the military has changed from the 1940s through today, the area’s USO has adapted to evolving needs. During World War II, more than 16 million active service members were involved in the war. Most of them were single men without families of their own. Today, in contrast, more than 1.4 million people are on active duty and include men and women of all ages, the majority of them moms and dads.
“During the Second World War, USO members didn’t have to worry about families left behind,” Fisher says. “Now, we’ve got to take into consideration that many parents are leaving behind little babies and their older siblings. We help families cope. There’s a misconception that we just send entertainers abroad to put on shows. We really do so much more.”
Although USO shows are what most people consider to be the organization’s main occupation, they account for only about 7 percent of all efforts. Shows are coordinated exclusively from USO’s national headquarters in Arlington, Va. The USO of Northern Ohio, like all 120 individual chapters, concentrates on the details of helping its service people overseas and their families at home.
Most of this area’s military reserves and National Guardsmen hold civilian jobs. And when they are called to active duty, they often lose their income, which in many situations is more lucrative than military pay. Today, many at-home spouses are barely squeaking by. One mother of three recently contacted the USO of Northern Ohio after her children wrote her a heartbreaking letter asking why she worked so hard and only wanted to sleep when she was home.
“She, like many people who contact us, has a lot of pride,” Fisher says, “and she didn’t want to call. But she was at the end of her rope. She hadn’t cut her grass, paid the bills, cooked a meal or raked a leaf. The USO came in and contacted scout troops to help her with her yard work. We helped her out of a tight spot and got her back on her feet. And that’s why we’re here. There’s no shame in asking for help. We show our appreciation by giving back to them.”
The USO has been using technology to help create a bridge between military parents overseas and children at home. Besides establishing Internet facilities and e-mail service centers for long-distance communication, USO chapters are also coming up with some creative ways to ease the loneliness that children often feel when they’re separated from their parents.
“We have volunteers tape parents reading kids’ stories,” Fisher says, “and then when they leave, their kids can watch Mom or Dad read to them on a television or computer screen and follow along in their own books. It’s another way USO has kept pace and evolved with the times.”
Operation Family First, a holiday initiative in collaboration with 95.5 The Fish radio station and WKYC, purchases toys for families of military service people. If citizens have a chance to donate something, they should know it’s going to a worthy cause. Last year, we gave out over 6,000 toys and gift cards. It’s a token of appreciation for these families who give so much for their country.”
No matter what the era, regardless of war or peace, the USO remains totally sustained by volunteers and donations. The government doesn’t support any of local chapters. They receive nothing from Headquarters, other than administrative assistance. “People think that we get help from the military or government,” O’Malley says. “That’s absolutely wrong. And people also tend to think that as soon as a war ends, we pack up our tents and go home. No. The USO continues to serve everyone who serves our country, whether they’re fighting or not.” H