The Fort Riley USO center, atop Custer Hill, operates 365 days each year with a staff of only two full-time employees. The majority of the Fort Riley USO’s energy comes from a cadre of volunteers. Most of the volunteers are made up of soldiers, spouses, and family members.
April Blackmon, the Fort Riley USO Director, said recently during an interview, “It’s nice that we do have a lot of younger folks volunteering and staying in a positive environment.” Blackmon has found some challenges with her volunteer team because of turnover due to soldiers and their families receiving Permanent Change of Station (PCS) orders, and volunteer soldiers being deployed. However, Blackmon endeavors to reach out to the surrounding communities educating on the benefits of volunteerism with the USO.
“We would love to see more community folks get involved,” expressed Blackmon, who sees volunteering with the USO as an excellent option for demonstrating support for the troops. Local communities surrounding Fort Riley are also in the unique position of being able to access the post, as it has an open-post policy and is very community-friendly.
For military spouses who volunteer at the center, and with the USO programs, the experience offers an opportunity to build skills for future employment, and to keep resumes active. Blackmon seemed proud discussing this sometimes overlooked benefit to volunteerism, and stated that she gladly writes letters of recommendation for volunteers who seek to parlay their USO volunteer experience into a paid employment in the private or public sector.
Blackmon stated, “We take pride in being an alcohol-free environment,” promoting positivity, and offering something different than a high energy “Dave & Busters” type of atmosphere. She views the post USO center as a relaxing place to decompress. Blackmon also likens the center to being “the cool aunt’s house;” a place where troubled soldiers can escape peer pressures and find safety. Blackmon recounted several tales, during her interview, of opportunities with service members where she was able to utilize the center and her genuine concern for the troops to empower soldiers to take charge of their life and make positive plans for the future.
It is not just the USO center, with its snack bar, entertainment area, and nine large screen televisions that makes the Fort Riley USO so important to the military community. It is also the programs that the USO runs on post; such as the No Dough Dinners, which happen twice monthly just before payday. The first No Dough Dinner started with pizza in the park and fed about 125 people. It has since moved to the old dining facility on Drum Street, which has generally been used only for culinary training prior to becoming the No Dough Dinner facility. Blackmon stated there are three primary target audiences for the No Dough Dinners; to assist soldiers and their families who may struggle with funds just prior to payday; to serve the needs of families of deployed troops; and to support military families who may want to eat together without the task of cooking. Members of the American Legion and Vietnam Veterans travel to Fort Riley in order to help prepare the food.
Another one of the USO’s stellar programs is United Through Reading. Deploying service members are given a new book to read, which is recorded on DVD for their children. The video recording and book are sent to the service member’s family, whether the child is still in the womb or graduating high school. The program has also gone mobile in support of troops in Kansas City and Fort Leavenworth; and Blackmon stated the USO endeavors to support the other branches of military in the area with deploying troops as well.
“It is one of my favorite programs because it’s so simple,” exclaimed Blackmon.
Blackmon said the Fort Riley USO also works closely with MWR partners to learn of needs on post and to fill them. She half-jokingly stated she spends so much time physically out of the USO center that she has stopped calling herself the Center Director, just referring to herself as the Director. In October, according to Blackmon, the USO partnered with Arts & Crafts and hosted over 300 people for a pumpkin painting. The Fort Riley USO is also now hosting Family Readiness Group (FRG) open houses to educate FRGs on what’s happening at the USO, and what resources are available.
The Fort Riley USO center is open on holidays; including Thanksgiving and Christmas. It is located at building 6918 Trooper Drive, Fort Riley, Kansas 66442. To visit the center online, visit the official USO website or find the Fort Riley USO on Facebook. For more information about how to help the Fort Riley USO, contact the Fort Riley USO Director, April Blackmon, at 785-240-5327, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Fort Riley USO mission is simple: to take care of troops and their families, Until Everyone Comes Home.