USO-Metropolitan Washington honored civilian and servicemember volunteers for their commitment to helping military men and women during its Annual Celebration of Volunteers ceremony Saturday.
Families, USO and military leadership joined at the Fort Belvoir Officers' Club to applaud the efforts of 5,000 volunteers in the Washington D.C., Northern Virginia and Baltimore areas. These volunteers sacrificed 83,000 hours of personal time to host events, prepare food and put together care packages for servicemembers.
USO-Metro hosted the celebration to show appreciation to its volunteers.
This year's ceremony included a luncheon, awards presentations and a keynote speech from Col. Charles Callahan, Fort Belvoir Community Hospital commander. Callahan compared USO volunteers' courage to that of Soldiers in ancient Roman Armies that brought unit colors to the front lines before battles.
"Thank you on behalf of the government, thank you on behalf of the American people," Callahan said. "Thank you for moving the colors forward to demonstrate to us what it means to sacrifice."
The mission of USO-Metro is to lift the spirits of U.S. troops and their Families. According to an information pamphlet, the organization has served 125,000 active-duty travelers, dependent Family members and retirees at regional airports during the past year by providing food and entertainment. USO volunteers have also distributed 129,000 care packages, provided 28,000 tickets to regional events and provided emergency housing, food assistance, children's programs and events to more than 80,000 deployed or deploying servicemembers and their Families.
"To all of our volunteers, your service does not go unnoticed, my friends," said Elaine Rogers, USO-Metro president and chief executive officer. "Each and every day you touch the lives of our men and women in uniform in ways that words can't describe."
USO volunteers represent strength for the nation as they continue to help servicemembers in what Callahan called "frightening times." He was referring to both the current budget problems and overseas conflicts.
Callahan rhetorically asked during his speech, "Where do we look for the inspiration to remind us that we have to overcome negativity bias?"
He answered, "We look at our volunteers."
Volunteers were honored for their sacrifice and courage throughout the event. Rogers and Cheryl Hall, USO-Metro chief operating officer, discussed the activities at each USO-Metro location within the region. The big event for Fort Belvoir was the recently opened Warrior and Family Center and the 350 volunteers operating the site. The center provides space for games, music, dining and healing. The location is very popular with servicemembers and volunteers, as 100 people are on a waiting list to volunteer their help, according to Hall.
Individuals were also recognized during the celebration. Gunnery Sgt. Tawanda Hanible, Marine Corps Recruiting Command, Office of Diversity, diversity operations chief, was recognized as the C. Haskell Small Award winner. The Haskell award is presented to one active duty servicemember in the Washington-Baltimore region to recognize his or her volunteer efforts performed while off duty. In 2011, Hanible founded Operation Heroes Connect, a nonprofit organization that partners servicemembers and veterans with mentoring opportunities for at risk youth ages 7 to 17. To date, Hanible has paired 44 children with active duty and veteran volunteers. The nonprofit has also sent 4,400 holiday cards during the 2011 and 2012 holiday season to deployed servicemembers. Hanible has also helped other organizations collect toys and donate coats.
"When you're not deployed you feel like you need to be helping people," said Hanible, who was adopted when she was 5-years-old and finds the inspiration to volunteer through her military service and her foster parents. "This is just my way to feel like I'm doing something more."
Hall fought back tears while discussing Hanible's accomplishments to guests.
"You realize this person is a Marine and is already serving and yet finds time to give back to her community," said Hall, explaining her emotion at the time. "It takes a special kind of person to be giving that much."
As part of the Haskell award presentation, USO-Metro also recognized one servicemember from each of the remaining armed service branches for their volunteer contributions. Staff Sgt. Hazeez Olajuwon, U.S. Army Garrison Fort Meade, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, human resources sergeant, received the award for the Army. Olajuwon spent more than 120 hours serving 400 dinners to homeless veterans for Thanksgiving. He also volunteered more than 50 hours organizing and sorting donated food and packing bags for more than 380 military Families during Fort Meade's Holiday Assistance Program.
"It's very overwhelming," Olajuwon said of the recognition. "It's amazing to be amongst all these great people that volunteer."
The other servicemembers recognized were; Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Devon A. Dimmit, Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Lisa A. Pique and Air Force Master Sgt. Rosie M. Smoots.
Among the individual civilians recognized was Evi Cox-Jordan, USO-Metro Volunteer. Cox-Jordan was one of eight USO-Metro volunteers awarded with a jacket for achieving 1,000 volunteer hours. Cox-Jordan accomplished the feat in one year despite an ongoing battle with Bell's palsy, a paralysis or weakness of the muscles on one side of the face.
"My inspiration comes from the men and women serving every day," Cox-Jordan said. "They sacrifice so much for our lives and we should be able to give back."