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San Antonio USO adapts to COVID-19

By Tech. Sgt. Ave I. Young | 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs | May 8, 2020

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO, Texas —

The San Antonio United Service Organizations centers may be physically closed, with the exception of the San Antonio International Airport location, but the staff continues to serve our community every single day.

“We have a full calendar of virtual programming for those who are observing stay home orders,” said Heather Krauss, USO San Antonio director. “Each day we have resiliency programming, fitness challenges, kids activities, motivational moments, and various other activities to do. Our goal was to create programming that interests all of the military and dependent demographics we serve. These virtual programs have been extremely popular and encourage interaction between the USO staff, volunteers, military members, and families practicing social distancing.”

The USO’s mission is to strengthen America’s military service members by keeping them connected to family, home and country throughout their service to the nation.

One of the biggest obstacles they’ve met is the inability of families to travel and attend the Air Force Basic Military Training graduations.

“We foresaw a need and decided to create a program in which BMT students’ families can send us messages for their Airman,” Krauss said. “From those messages, we create videos of congratulations and well wishes directly from their family and friends supporting them from home. Airmen can view these videos after graduation and once they have access to their phones again.

"We also let the parents know which video their messages are published in so they have the ability to view, save, and send them to their Airmen," Krauss added. "Every single week, we reach about 20,000 people, spreading joy at a time that has been quite difficult. It is just a little connection piece from home to increase morale. This has been a hugely successful program and a really good resource for families that cannot be here in person to celebrate this milestone and most memorable moment with their Airmen. The goal is to bridge the gap of geographical distance, so families can be a part of their Airman’s wonderful accomplishment.

“The Fort Sam Houston and Downtown USO centers are delivering emergent necessities and morale to JBSA-Fort Sam Houston and JBSA-Lackland," Krauss said. "They are making deliveries to JBSA trainees, quarantined trainees, and permanent party populations. We are delivering grab and go snacks, hygiene products, meal-to-go boxes, hand sanitizer, and various items for morale. We are arranging USO2GO kits, which are kits in the form of a very large care package for military units.” 

To help dining facilities at JBSA-Fort Sam and JBSA-Lackland observe social-distancing regulations and still meet the daily needs of the extremely large trainee population, the USO makes regular deliveries of To Go Meal Boxes.
 
“With this resource, the students can do a grab-and-go meal from the dining facilities since social distancing regulations put a great strain on the number of people utilizing the dining facilities at a time,” Krauss said. “We have tried to alleviate some of that burden and help create an environment to accommodate a large number of students. We’ve delivered thousands of to-go meal boxes. This way they can grab meals and go back to their room or their classes or wherever they’re permitted to take them. Additionally, the meal to-go boxes are also being used to feed people who are being quarantined. We are also doing grab and go snacks for the student trainee and quarantine populations.”

The USO at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston has creatively transformed their regular movie nights and now hosts virtual Netflix Movie Nights every Friday.

“We set up the Netflix party link through our Netflix central account, sharing it to our Facebook page, which allows access from your personal account,” Krauss said. “Similar to a chat room, everyone signed into the Netflix party link can chat with each other during the movie. We have a moderator on staff that is online to answer questions and mediate comments.”

As a non-profit focused on direct service mission delivery, the USO has met challenges during this COVID-19 pandemic.

“We love working with people and we love to be in the company of our clients to support our military members and their families," Krauss said. “For many of us, this separation from direct service has been a hard adjustment. Also, the shift in logistics of how we are currently operating in a virtual atmosphere has been quite an adjustment. We had to completely build out virtual programing that represents our direct support services in an impactful manner.

"To be honest, one of the biggest challenges that we faced was that we did not have a lot of virtual programming before due to a lot of our mission delivery requiring direct contact," she added. "However, we have now built up a huge virtual programming platform to meet the needs in a virtual world.”

 Another challenge the centers face due to being closed is that their volunteers are not able to fully participate.

“While some volunteers do have the ability to support through virtual options and virtual program support, we know it is not the same as being able to serve the population directly,” Krauss said. “Our volunteers are like family to us. We have a very small staff so we are consistently on the go. There are thousands of people assigned throughout JBSA and our goal is to reach as many of them as possible. We are constantly delivering necessity and comfort items in order to hopefully boost morale.”

The USO is continuing to serve transitioning service members and their families through the USO Pathfinder Transitions program.

“We are continuing all of our transitioning programming online via virtual Zoom and Microsoft Teams meetings,” Krauss said.

Courses include professional workshops, networking, resume reviews, interview practice, and financial readiness. They are continuing all of that programming through COVID-19.  

“We will continue to serve throughout the needs of COVID-19 by making deliveries and through virtual support versus people coming to our centers,” Krauss said. “We love what we do so we are going to continue to operate this way as long as we need to. We don’t want our service members or their families to feel like they don’t have a resource to go to. They will always have a resource in the USO.”

For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/USO.SanAntonio/ or www.sanantonio.uso.org