By Ashley DeBerry
Meet Maria Paige: an unsung hero championing military spouses and paving the way for change in the military community for over two decades while braving seven deployments, five moves and a career with the USO.
Maria’s journey in the military community started at Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base in California, where her father, a Navy Corpsman who served through the first years of the war in Iraq, was stationed. During this time, she met her future husband, who was a Marine.
She soon encountered many of the realities of life as a military spouse: year-long deployments, waiting months for letters to arrive, attending volunteer meetings, anxiously watching the news, working a steady job and – through it all – maintaining the home front while her husband was away.
But, Maria explained, there were ups as well as downs.
“I was pleasantly surprised by the unexpected joys and the opportunities for growth and improvement that it brought into my life,” she said.
During her numerous Permanent Change of Station (PCS) moves, Maria discovered her passion for volunteering in the military community, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree in human services and a master’s degree in public administration. Acquiring expertise in nonprofit leadership, business management, policy development and effective communication, she developed her enthusiasm for becoming a community leader and leading nonprofit organizations and volunteer groups.
Today, Maria is the manager of the USO Camp Schwab Center on the island of Okinawa, Japan. Here, she leads a large operation of staff and volunteers, and plans activities that boost morale and connect service members with their families. She devotes her mornings, weeknights and weekends to advocating for military spouses and organizing bi-annual leadership and education seminars with the Okinawa Leadership Seminar, which aims to empower military spouses, where she serves as the board president.
Recently, Maria was named the 2023 Armed Forces Insurance Camp Schwab Souse of the Year, an award acknowledging military spouses who have made exceptional contributions to their communities. As we celebrate Military Spouse Appreciation Day, we highlight Maria and her remarkable story of empowering and assisting military spouses, shedding light on their immense challenges and invaluable contributions to our country’s military community.
Maria Shares Her Lifetime of Military Spouse Knowledge to Empower Others
Through her own experiences as military spouse, Maria knows the challenges of military life and the importance of finding purpose and opportunities amid constant moves and sacrifice all too well. Today, in her roles of MilSpouse, community leader and USO center manager, Maria is passionate about sharing those experiences with others, in the hopes of empowering them.
Here are five bits of wisdom from Maria:
Give Back to Your Community Through Volunteerism
Maria explained that pursuing purpose is crucial as a MilSpouse.
“I realized this through volunteerism. I can still get professional experience, community involvement and work towards my career goals,” she said.
Maria leads by example. She was a stay-at-home parent for her children’s first eight years, while simultaneously staying consistent in her volunteer work, education and home businesses. This approach allowed her to jump-start her career once her children were in school. Now, Maria is committed to sharing her valuable experience with other spouses, advising them to "start volunteering” and get their “school done to help fill the gaps during the transition.”
Maria also sees volunteering as an opportunity to develop leadership skills that can be used to benefit the military community.
“Use your volunteer time to give back. In my volunteer experience, I have gained new leadership skills that I take in and put back into the community,” she said.
Setbacks are Inevitable – But Connecting with Your Community Can Help You Overcome Them
Married to the military for over two decades, Maria has encountered her share of obstacles as a military spouse. “Setbacks,” she explained, have been one of her biggest challenges.
“I often get a few steps ahead and must take a few steps back,” she explained. “Not knowing when we will have to move again, we’ve been cut short of three-year duties multiple times. Not having longevity in a job has been difficult.”
Despite these setbacks, Maria has persevered by remaining involved and connected to her community. Her philosophy has been to see her job as her business, volunteer to benefit her community, advocate for the USO’s mission, raise awareness and unite people. Maria has also found ways to connect with her job through volunteer work, creating balance and fulfillment. She believes that this military lifestyle is what one makes of it.
“If you stay in your house and are reluctant to get out and find the beauty in the community, you lose out on opportunities and meeting people that, later down the road, will be there for you.”
Balance is Key
Maria believes it’s critical to learn how to pivot and adjust to the demands of military life.
“You don’t have to sacrifice one thing for the other; balance is ongoing.”
Through her advocacy for volunteerism and balance, Maria can relate to the challenges of juggling personal and professional goals. However, she has found a way to handle difficult situations with grace and conviction by looking to mentors for support, such as her USO Okinawa Area Director, J. Phil VanEtten, who models and encourages autonomy and is a pivotal contributor to her work-life balance.
She explained that she prioritizes volunteering and taking time off from work to stay productive while staying on top of her busy schedule.
“I’m intentional with my time,” Maria said, explaining that she knows that maximizing her time is critical to her success and impact as a leader, advocate, spouse, mother and friend.
Prioritize the Ones You Love
Maria advises other military spouses to prioritize their family and home.
“Home is where your family is,” she reminds us.
Maria encourages other military spouses not to let the military lifestyle limit them, and to pour into their family despite the constant need to rebuild and sacrifice. Maria is all too aware of the difficulties and isolation that military lifestyle can entail, but prioritizing staying connected with her family and friends is crucial.
Community is Everything
Maria has observed that some spouses hold themselves back because they must constantly adapt to new duty stations, new jobs, new friends, new neighborhoods – new lives. But her advice is to embrace opportunities offered by military life and not limit themselves, because they never know how much time they might have at their current duty station, and they should make the most of it.
Maria believes building a community and not trying to balance everything alone is critical to fostering strong connections.
“It’s essential to have that support system, and I consider my community and team members part of my family,” she said.
Empathetic to the needs of military families, Maria’s approach to connection and community-building serves as a reminder of the importance of accountability and support for one another.
Maria also noted the crucial role of networking and community resources in supporting military spouses. According to her, the most helpful resources are USO spouse events, military unit spouse groups, leadership seminars and military support nonprofits (such as the USO), to name a few. Maria encouraged military spouses to take advantage of these opportunities to get plugged in and build strong connections to help them navigate military life’s challenges.
"When you find your community, you find a tribe going through the same thing. It’s incredible to have someone who understands what it’s like to be a military spouse and knows you’re not alone.”
Through Maria’s words of wisdom, one common thread can be seen: life as a military spouse can be difficult. Yes, it can also be full of adventure and opportunities and lifelong friends that will support you through everything from deployments to job hunting, but undeniably, military life can be hard.
And while military spouses are resilient, Maria acknowledged that some civilians may lack understanding of the unique challenges of military life.
"What they don’t see is that we don’t have the same opportunities for consistency in our jobs, education and even our families,” she explained.
In fact, according to the 2022 Blue Star Families’ Military Lifestyle Survey, active-duty military families’ #1 issue of concern was military spouse employment. Moving so often makes it difficult for military spouses to maintain a career, let alone establish long-term friendships or communities.
Maria emphasized the importance of raising awareness about these challenges and highlighting the contributions and sacrifices of military spouses. Through connection and understanding, Maria hopes civilians unfamiliar with the military lifestyle can become better advocates and allies for military families.
Ultimately, Maria’s goal as a military spouse advocate, leader and USO employee is to empower other military spouses to succeed, regardless of where life takes them. Her passion for supporting military families is driven by the belief that everyone can make a positive impact, and her commitment to supporting military spouses is rooted in a deep understanding of their challenges and an unwavering desire to advocate for their needs.
“My biggest goal is to empower other spouses to achieve their full potential and thrive in any situation,” she said.
From building solid connections through community resources to balancing personal and professional goals, Maria’s leadership offers a roadmap for others to follow. As a true champion of military spouses, Maria’s tenacity and resilience inspire others.
Her passion for supporting others will undoubtedly continue to impact the lives of military families for years to come – and sheds light on how much we appreciate our military spouses, and all that they do, today and every day.
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