Melissa Durham and her 1-year-old daughter Ariella stood patiently waiting in a frigid warehouse on the base of Ft. Belvoir in Virginia while volunteers wrapped Christmas gifts, such as Cabbage Patch dolls and teapots, in colorful wrapping paper.
“Last year my daughter came early, right before Christmas,” Durham said. “So the only gift she had came from the USO.”
Durham’s children-- she’s also the mother of a 4-year-old son-- are two of the lucky recipients of gift donations from the United Service Organizations’ Project USO Elf Holiday Program. Nearly 1,300 children of active duty military personnel so far have received Christmas gifts and toys through the generosity of sponsors and volunteer “elves” this Christmas season. More than 700 were delivered at Ft. Belvoir while more than 500 were delivered at Ft. Meade.
“It amazes me at all the donations and volunteers we have helping the children,” said Army Command Sgt. Maj. Carolyn Reynolds. “The soldiers with two or three children or big families, it helps out a lot.”
According to the Ft. Belvoir Eagle, the base also hosted a Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony on Dec. 7, which included a visit from Santa and community members singing Christmas songs. Earlier in the month, JAG Corps Families on the base prepared holiday packages for 400 service members deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait.
At Ft. Myers, soldiers got into the holiday season by holding the annual Operation Santa basketball tournament, a 5K race called the “Reindeer Stampede” and Operation Santa Toy Drive.
To participate in the Elf program active duty service members had to apply by Nov. 4 with a wish list from their children.
On Dec. 10 the USO visited area businesses to pick-up toy donations while some sponsors chose to drop off toys at gift staging areas at Ft. Belvoir and Ft. Meade.
On Dec. 13, soldiers and military family members lined up outside a warehouse at Ft. Belvoir to pick up gifts. The warehouse had several red bags filled with toys like skateboards, bikes and Barbie trucks. Christmas music played in the background while members of the Washington Nationals’ Nat pack had fun dancing and laughing with children and the Nationals mascot Teddy. The volunteers, some dressed as elves, provided toy gift wrapping and helped recipients carry gifts to their cars.
“We do this to truly help the young, enlisted families on all the military bases in our area,” said Elaine Rogers, President and Chief Executive Officer of the USO of Metropolitan Washington. “We actually identify those who need extra help to make Christmas really special.”
Durham, whose Air Force husband is stationed at Andrews Air Force Base near Allentown, Md., is extremely grateful for the kindness of strangers during the holiday season.
“Without the people donating to the USO it wouldn’t be the wonderful program that it is,” Durham said. “It’s the really the people that donate I would like to thank.”
In addition to military spouses like Durham, several soldiers showed up in uniform to pick up toys for their kids.
Brittany Harper, on active duty with the Coast Guard, is a married mother of two living in Woodbridge, Va.
“It’s a good program and [with] my husband not working, it’s good to have some extra gifts for the kids,” Harper said.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Brandon Davis from Manassas Park, Va. signed up for the program because his family, a wife and three children, live on a single income.
“This is a huge blessing, I don’t know how to put it in words,” Davis said. “That’s why I brought my boys out so they can actually thank the people for the gifts.”
Danielle Brunson, an Air Force member stationed at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C. walked out of the warehouse with her 1-year-old son Liam in one hand and a red bag full of gifts in the other.
“I actually love it because I’m a single parent,” Brunson said. “I want to make it a special holiday for him since it’s his first [he will remember].”