‘I felt they were there with me for a few seconds, and that was the best feeling,’ Young Marine Celebrates First Birthday Away from Home with USO HRCV’s Operation Birthday Cake Surprise

When service members are deployed or conducting training away from family and loved ones, the typical surprise birthday party, cookout with friends and family, or dinner at their favorite restaurant may not be an option for some.

For many families of service members who are far from home, the USO’s Operation Birthday Cake surprise is the easiest way they can send warm wishes and celebrate their loved one’s special day.

A regular birthday surprise can take hours of careful coordination, from choosing the venue to selecting the color of the frosting on the cake. But for a USO Operation Birthday Cake celebration to get off the ground, all it takes is for the service member’s family to contact a USO center via their webpage, Facebook account, or email to inquire if that center can support the event.

On Oct 13, 2021, the USO Hampton Roads and Central Virginia (HRCV) staff received an email from Stephanie Barone Erhardt, where she shared that her little sister, Pfc. Luana Barone Oliveira, was turning 20 years old on Oct. 18, and that she needed the USO’s support to make her birthday special.

Born and raised in Brazil, Pfc. Oliveira is currently attending the Marine Corps’ Food Service Specialist course at the U.S. Army Quartermaster School in Fort Lee, Va., where she was spending her first birthday away from her family and friends back home.

Erhardt expressed to the USO HRCV team that she had read about the USO Birthday Cake Program online and was curious to see if this program was still operational given social distancing and COVID-19 protocols. The USO HRCV team assured her that the USO’s support to service members and their families is unwavering, and they are always ready to support.

After receiving Erhardt’s message, the USO HRCV team immediately went to work, coordinating with Erhardt and Oliveira’s command to plan and execute a birthday cake surprise. Erhardt was thrilled to hear that her little sister would not go without a proper birthday celebration on her special day.

“Thank you for being so careful, choosing the flavor of the cake my sister likes the most, and putting her name on the cake, she loved it,” said Erhardt. “My family and I were very grateful for this very special moment.”

This was Oliveira’s first birthday away from family and friends back home, but the USO did not let that stop her from receiving a birthday surprise from her family and USO HRCV.

“The training students hold a special place in my heart because they are training, and their time is not their own,” said Kasinda Thomas, the Center Operations Supervisor for the USO HRCV, Fort Lee location. “I was happy that I could support Luana and give her a small piece of home, to let her know that she is thought about and cared for.”

The USO HRCV staff purchased the cake from the local grocery store and asked the baker to spell out Oliveira’s first name ‘Luana,’ wishing her a ‘Happy 20th Birthday.’ Huddled inside an office where Oliveira was told to report to by her instructors, the USO staff and volunteers surprised Oliveira with her favorite flavor of cake – chocolate.

“When I got there, and I saw a cake, my first thought was, ‘how do they know it’s my birthday?’ When Kasinda told me that my family sent that to me, I could not describe how happy I was,” said Oliveira. “I felt they were there with me for a few seconds, and that was the best feeling.”

The days leading up to her birthday were tough on Oliveira as she always celebrated her birthdays with her family in Brazil.

“I love my family, and I want to thank the USO for this surprise. It was extraordinary and made me feel that even far away from my family, they were there with me on my birthday,” said Oliveira. “That cake made my day, and I will never forget this birthday, thank you USO.”

“This presentation was extra special, because Luana’s family are all living in Brazil and her sister is in San Diego. She is far away from home and those that she is most familiar with,” said Kenneth Miller, Center Operations and Program Manager, USO HRCV. “Being a small part in something that made such a big impact on the service members as well as the family that could not be with her for her first Birthday away from home is something that makes working for the USO pretty special.”

To learn more about USO Hampton Road and Central Virginia’s programming and events, please visit https://hrcv.uso.org/programs

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