USO Okinawa maintains community relations during COVID-19

USO Okinawa maintains community relations during COVID-19

by Ashley DeBerry
USO Hansen

Camp Hansen, OKINAWA, Japan -- Little faces lit up with excitement and wonder as the lovely Alice of Wonderland and her friends, the Queen of Hearts, the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Hatter, arrived at the entrances of their classrooms. USO Hansen staff, dressed in head to toe costumes with hand painted face coverings, surprised over 260 local children across Kin Town on October 30 with Halloween treats and warm greetings.

Camp Hansen Community Relations Manager, Takayuki Kayo has been organizing community relations (COMREL) events for Kin Town, Ginoza Village, and Onna Village since 2011.

“Hansen USO has been one of the greatest supporters for COMREL events on Hansen,” Kayo said.  “The team has provided cultural exchange opportunities for local residents to learn about Easter, Halloween and Christmas. I am so grateful for the hospitality the staff and volunteers show whenever we have a community event.”

Prior to COVID-19, Kayo executed an average of 20 community outreach events per month.  For the last three years, he had over 250 events per year.

“One of our primary COMREL events was ‘Play in English Program’ at local pre-schools where Marines interacted with children through songs, games and dance,” Kayo said. “Since the COVID pandemic started, we’ve cancelled the program at all eight schools and have not been able to resume the program as of today.”

At the height of COVID-19 pandemic, USO Hansen was forced to cancel all Easter programming including outreach events for military families and the local community. To combat COVID and keep COMREL events alive, USO Hansen team proposed a Halloween school tour in October.

“I have had many memorable moments here at the USO, but the COMREL event last Halloween where we, as a team, dressed up in costumes from Peter Pan was so fun,” Jeff Pitt, USO Hansen Center Operations Specialist, said. “Seeing the smiles on the faces of the local children was priceless. It didn’t have to be a big event; we just wanted to be positively involved with the community again.”

Kayo and the staff of USO Hansen visited four preschools Friday across the Kin Town area: Kagei, Kin-no-Hoshi, Kin, and Namisato. Each school had 40-100 students from ages three to five years old. Grouped together by classroom, children, dressed as princesses and superheroes, eagerly waited to meet the characters of Alice in Wonderland and say, torikku oa torito (trick or treat).

“A little girl recognized me as Alice,” Jodie Allen, USO Hansen Center Operations Specialist, said. “In a small voice she said ‘Arisu’. This made me smile. Where can you work and have this much fun? Only at the USO.”

On the same day, 30 kilometers north of Kin, USO Schwab staff and volunteers spent the day with 300 school children of Henoko, Toyohara, and Kushi sharing Halloween traditions and distributing candy treats.

“This was my first COMREL event with the USO. I love children and to be able to interact with the schools of our host nation was a memory I won’t soon forget.” Shannon Sanchez, USO Schwab Field Programs Manager, said. “Taking an active interest in the well-being of our host nation community helps us to give back and strengthen trust. It also allows us the opportunity to work with formal and informal leadership to forge improved relations and lasting memories of not only the USO in Okinawa, but the military presence.”

In the face of COVID-19, USO Okinawa centers plan to continue community involvement through innovative programming and creative solutions.

“The impact of COMREL events provide the Japanese and military community opportunities to develop mutual understanding and foster friendships,” Kayo said. “I am very thankful for USO Hansen for creating an opportunity to maintain connection with the Kin Town Schools. This is our first event in seven months.”

Whether it’s serving the troops or helping the local community, USO Okinawa staff and volunteers are committed to making the USO a special place in the hearts and minds of all.

For more information about USO events, click Okinawa.USO.Org or find a center on Facebook. You can also visit one of the six USO centers today: USO Schwab, USO Hansen, USO Kadena, USO Camp Foster, USO Futenma, and USO Kinser.

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