South San Francisco’s LeAnn Thornton received the national USO Volunteer of the Quarter Award, out of volunteers from more than 101 centers in the continental United States.
Thornton, a full-time executive assistant to the chief of police at the Hillsborough Police Department, started volunteering five years ago and averages 25-30 volunteer hours a month with the United States Service Organizations and she holds the role of family support specialist. The organization’s primary goal is to lift the spirits of the nation’s troops and their families.
“It was a huge surprise,” said Thornton, who has worked for Hillsborough police for 17 years. “It’s not a recognition of me, it’s a recognition of all. The USO supports so many different programs and events. It’s not something that one person earns, it’s the whole group.”
Thornton is a regular San Francisco International Airport center volunteer, a member of the welcome home team and represents the USO at numerous functions around Northern California and is a member of the Families of the Fallen Response Team. During the last quarter, she worked nine Families of the Fallen missions, three homecomings, two deployments and three other events outside the centers.
“LeAnn exemplifies the pride the Bay Area community has in our troops and families,” USO Bay Area Director Jeff Herndon said in a prepared statement. “She brings that pride to life with a level of enthusiasm and commitment that creates a warm and comfortable environment that makes our military members feel like they’re right at home. The attention she gives to ensuring all details have been adequately handled is reflected in the smiles on the faces of those she is supporting.”
Others praised Thornton for her work as well.
“Having LeAnn as a volunteer with the USO allows us to greatly increase the number of troops we serve through our programs in the Bay Area,” Amy Eilts, USO Bay Area’s programs and operations manager, said in a prepared statement. “She is an extremely valuable member of our team. Her hard work and dedication to providing quality support to our men and women in uniform is unmatched.”
Thornton loves a challenge, so figuring out complicated details for events is one of her favorite parts of the volunteer position, she said. Recently, 94 Marines from out of state needed a place to stay at SFO overnight and she was able to get two conference rooms for the group, along with food and blankets for three weekends in a row.
“The airport has been so supportive in whatever our needs are,” she said. “You can call anyone and they’ll say ‘yes.’”
Volunteering has been a part of Thornton’s life since she was a child in South San Francisco. Her father served as a medic in the Korean War, then became a police officer when he came back. Hillsborough adopted the 101st Airborne Division out of Kentucky, which Thornton currently helps coordinate.
“It’s wonderful to volunteer anywhere but, if you find your passion, it makes it even more rewarding,” she said.
The volunteer job does present emotional challenges as Thornton often comforts families who have lost a loved one in service. Shortly after she began her volunteer work, her father passed away.
“I’ve been asked, ‘isn’t it difficult?’” she said. “I try not to think about it that way. I like to think about it as someone who needs support. I like to think that my dad is there with me keeping me strong. … I just look at them thinking, ‘you have volunteered to defend your country.’ They’re paying the ultimate price. What I do is simple.”
There aren’t any large bases in this area and people don’t tend to think about the military much, she said.
“I will wear the USO shirt at the store and someone will say ‘what’s a USO?’” Thornton said. “To educate people, it inspires them sometimes to know there’s an organization like this. Do we think of the [military] families really? They go through ordeals and have to take care of the home and family on their own sometimes.”
For more on the USO, visit uso.org/US.
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