USO Korea still connecting during COVID-19

USO Korea still connecting during COVID-19

by USO Korea
USO Korea

The USO has been alongside US troops for nearly 80 years. Throughout this time, our mission remains constant: to connect service members and their families back to home, family, and country. This mission has taken numerous forms, to include the delivery of programs, uniting people in varying ways, entertaining deployed troops, and assisting in transition both during initial entry training and then later as service members prepare to depart the military and return to civilian life. Recently, however, we have adapted our mission delivery methodology due to huge changes in the environment as a result of the impact of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.

Beginning in February, United States Forces Korea (USFK) leadership implemented very specific public health guidance to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the 28,500 service members and their families stationed on the Peninsula. Similarly, USO Korea has responded accordingly by adjusting the preparation of our centers and equipment, reimagining our programs, and conducting special outreach to the quarantine sites.

As USFK adjusted their operations, USO Korea followed suit, starting with training our staff volunteers to ensure our centers are clean and safe for our patrons. We turned to both the Preventive Medicine staff and the Garrison Safety teams to determine the correct procedures for cleaning our centers, disinfecting equipment, and proper social distancing. In all five of our centers in Korea, we rearranged furniture and implemented additional spacing between computer workstations and on-line gaming consoles to observe these guidelines. The respective Garrison Command Teams have been incredibly supportive, in fact declaring USO staff as mission essential so that troops and their families could continue to enjoy our programs and offerings during this time of increased health awareness.  Unfortunately, the effects of COVID-19 struck closer to home several times, forcing us to make the decision to close three of our five centers for a three-week period. During this time, USO Staff and Volunteers in those three closed centers worked daily to prepare for re-opening once the command teams indicated when we will assume a lower health protection condition that allowed for this. We were able to re-open USO Osan on 21 April and the two centers on Camp Humphreys (Sentry Village and One Stop) on 23 April.

Throughout the period of the coronavirus, our staff and volunteers continually innovated and supported the military community. To ensure we are following the social distancing standards, we continuously take a great deal of time and effort to reimagine our existing programs and creating new virtual programs. One of the first areas we noticed where we could make a positive difference in people’s lives is at the gates. Gate access points around the peninsula were being manned by service members 24 hours of the day, seven days a week, so our staff and volunteers provide them with morale boosting support, such as snacks, beverages, and books. Similarly, our staff visits base housing locations to provide a free lunch to the families sheltering in their homes. Once schools closed and much of the workforce continues to telework, we see a great opportunity to remind the community that we are there for them. Finally, one of the most challenging tasks for us is the creation of newly designed virtual programs. A virtual program is an activity or event in which the means of delivery is through an electronic device using one or more audio or video applications. It is not simply a video of an event that occurred at the center. With the help and guidance of other areas, and the Pacific Region Office, our staff and volunteers tapped into their more creative sides by creating various virtual programs, such as cooking and instructional videos. For example, USO Walker created a virtual program called, “What are you Cooking in your Kitchen?” and USO Osan created a “Bedtime Yoga” video, all conducted by our talented staff. We have found these virtual programs to be immensely popular, as many people enjoy the connection while remaining safe in their homes.

Finally, our staff and volunteers have been extremely diligent in responding to the military leadership requests for support to the quarantine sites. Service members and families entering the country are being placed in quarantine for 14 days, so this is another opportunity to lift the spirits of our troops and their families. We have implemented a special form of outreach to these locations, which includes board games, care packages, toiletries, snacks, bottled water, soda, and DVDs for people to enjoy. Staff and volunteers cannot physically go into the quarantine sites, so we arrange delivery of these items outside of the quarantine sites by coordinating with military units. Military personnel then distribute the care packages to Service and Family Members inside the quarantine site.

The role of the USO Korea area office during this time is instrumental not only to our success, but also to the efforts of the entire military community to confront the current situation. With the guidance we receive from senior military leaders and our USO leadership, we continuously assess the needs of our staff, volunteers, patrons, and communities by adapting ourselves and remaining resilient to the pandemic. We learned that being transparent with the information given to us was the best way to approach the situation and the positive results and feedback from the community are key point indicators of our success. USO Korea continues to provide “connection during corona” to help our troops and their families connect back to home, family, and country.

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