By Kayla Clark
When people think about moving to Italy, they dream about the delicious, authentic Neapolitan pizza, the sweet gelato, the incredible pasta – and while that is absolutely a part of living in Naples, as a military spouse, the reality of life abroad can be difficult.
Just as any military move, there are challenges. When stationed abroad, service members and their families are being relocated not only to a new place, but a new country with new customs, a new language, new ways of living or even new ways of driving. They are often moving far away from family and friends, and with overseas moves, this can become especially isolating as visits from loved ones now require a cross-Atlantic trip.
And for many military spouses, they must adjust, change or take pauses on their careers, and continually start over. In some locations, such as in Naples, Italy, employment laws can make it difficult for military spouses to find meaningful and fulfilling employment that capitalizes on their strengths and past experiences.
In fact, according to the 2022 Blue Star Families’ Military Lifestyle Survey, military spouse employment, or lack thereof, is the number one issue for nearly 50% of active-duty service members and military families.
That’s where the USO comes in. Our organization, which has more than 250 locations worldwide, provides programs and events that promote connection – between service members and with the comforts of home, yes, but also specifically among military spouses. Through programs such as USO Coffee Connections, military spouses can find a community of friends who understand what they are going through. But these events also offer the opportunity for spouses to volunteer, extend their professional work experience, network and give back to the community.
For military spouses such as USO volunteer Erika, this sudden change of lifestyle and employment was initially daunting.
“The most challenging part of moving [overseas] has been not working while simultaneously feeling trapped on base the first two months without a vehicle,” she said.
“I thought I would enjoy the time off after quitting my job to move, but I have found I need to feel productive and need to keep my mind moving. It really took a toll on my mental health and emotional well-being about a month after we moved here.”
After spending that first month in Italy, away from the support system of friends and family, Erika jumped right back into community through volunteering and even launching her own base run group.
“After a few weeks of feeling as if I didn’t have purpose here in Naples, and after I had been applying to every job posting under the sun, I dove in headfirst to volunteer with the USO, making it a point to try and have something scheduled for myself daily throughout the week,” Erika said.
“After making connections through the volunteer community, I later founded a community run group for service members and spouses on base to connect and get some dopamine. I have enjoyed the friendships that have emerged from the run group. We are always joking around with each other, promoting positivity, sharing our goals with each other and celebrating achievements. I also enjoy the accountability for myself. There is power in numbers!”
Since October of 2022, Erika has now served over 146 volunteer shifts with USO Naples, giving over 400 hours of her time in less than one year. She has heavily supported all of the USO’s large-scale holiday programs, weekly recurring events at the USO Center that supports the working base and has taken on the role of lead volunteer for the Patriot Express flights, which transport service members and their families as they move to or from overseas duty stations. These flights typically occur in the early hours of the morning, before the sun even rises, and because of this, it has historically been difficult to find USO volunteers available to support. Knowing that, Erika made it a priority to step in.
“I volunteered to be the Patriot Express Lead for a few reasons … I saw a need for someone to step up to help alleviate the back and forth of our USO staff and an opportunity to experience being in a leadership role. [And] I enjoy the opportunity to be able to serve in real time and the connections I am making with passengers.”
In addition to the flights and local USO programs, Erika has also been a staple with the USO Naples team, volunteering for many of the expeditionary opportunities that include support for visiting ships and other bases in the area.
Through Erika’s volunteerism – both with the USO and through launching her own running group – she has been able to be that link in her military community, connecting service members and spouses with one another. Her energy is contagious, and her work ethic and commitment are unparalleled. She creates a connection with all of the patrons she serves at the USO Center, and she cheerfully welcomes new volunteers with open arms and brings them into the USO family. And this hard work has been recognized – Erika was recently awarded the titles of Volunteer of the Month for USO Naples in November 2022, and then later Volunteer of the Quarter for Q1 in 2023 due to her outstanding commitment and service.
Erika has been a military spouse now for over three years, and while she’s still a fairly new spouse, she has spent her entire life in the military community, having been a military brat and raised by parents who both served in the Navy. When Erika and her husband got married, she explained that “the transition to becoming a military spouse felt as if I was going back to school with an extreme amount of homework since we were getting ready to move to Italy.”
Throughout the past year, Erika and her husband have been able to build their own community and support system in Italy and help others do the same. She has also taken advantage of all this overseas duty station has thrown at her, traveling throughout the country, and has continued to pursue the things she loves. Her favorite vacation has been visiting a Trulli House in Alberobello, Puglia, over the holidays, where they were able to take their two dogs, Rex and Maple, with them to enjoy the countryside and relax. She’ll also never turn down a good, fluffy, buttery croissant or some pistachio gelato.
When asked what advice she has for other fellow military spouses, she shared:
“An act of service is the most impactful work you can do, not only for the receiver, but [also] for yourself emotionally and mentally. It is powerful in healing, it is humbling, it is a form of gratitude, and fills your heart. Also, serving others takes time. There are no perfect conditions for you to volunteer your time, but it is worth it to devote a few hours here or there. If you want to learn more about yourself and grow, volunteer.”
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