MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. -- Military spouses experience many challenges: moving frequently, having their spouse deploy for long periods of time, juggling finances, education and more. One military spouse has taken these challenges head-on and turned them into opportunities, while also taking home the 2020 Air Force Spouse of the Year award.
Meet Lori Waddell, the wife of Master Sgt. Mitch Waddell, who is assigned to the 341st Force Support Squadron at Malmstrom Air Force Base. Waddell received the honor due to her involvement within communities on and off base.
"A big factor that played into a lot of what I did last year started when my family was stationed in Las Vegas," she said. "I wanted to help out with the Route 91 mass shooting that occurred there, I didn't know how, but I wanted to contribute in some way."
While she was initially turned away because the event was sensitive, another member in the area was looking for someone to manage the high volume of donations they were receiving.
As a result, Waddell stayed for 17 days straight, volunteering 12 hours a day.
"People's lives were upturned by something they couldn't control and I wanted to help ease that burden," she continued. "This experience led into last year, 2020, when the coronavirus hit."
2020, COVID and creating community in times of need
"COVID, to me, wasn't a time to cancel programs and be lenient or cancel community support and gatherings," Waddell said. "We needed the opposite.
People's mental health was at risk," she continued. "They were losing their jobs and we needed to be active with support during that time."
The dire need for community support ignited a fire within Waddell, and she started to get involved or initiate support for people who were affected by COVID-19.
At the beginning of 2020, there was an influx of new Airmen, who had just completed technical-school training, arriving at Malmstrom AFB with their families.
"I would participate in (virtual) meetings with these Airmen and their families," she said. "We would welcome them to the base, inform them of what they can expect, what (the force support squadron) can do for them … this led into me holding secondary virtual meetings with their spouses."
In those spouse-to-spouse virtual calls, Waddell would discuss the local area with new spouses, figure out what they wanted to know, invite them to the base Airman and Family Readiness Center, and educate them on resources and communities in the area.
Farmers-to-Family produce boxes
Around summer 2020, civilians around the country were laid off from work due to high COVID case numbers and many workplaces moving to a mission-essential-only workforce. With that, some military families lost a source of income and had to be stringent on their finances.
Waddell jumped in to help by working with a local charity to provide produce boxes to military families on base.
"Our group provided all the volunteers and training," she said. "I helped bring produce boxes on base through the spouses club, and the club donated their boxes to the military community at large."
Once the food boxes made it on base, spouses would distribute the boxes at Sun Plaza Park to anyone who showed up – and it quickly became a hit.
"These boxes helped save a week, or sometimes, a month's worth of groceries so families could focus on bills or other finances," Waddell said. "There was a lot of sharing going on if families didn't use the entire box."
Waddell's drive to help those in need inspired her to pursue community orientation at higher levels through the Community and Volunteering Organizations Active in Disaster programs.
Volunteering on local and state-wide levels
Community Organizations Active in Disaster is a group of community organizations, businesses, nonprofits and individuals who work together within their county. Cascade County did not have an active COAD last year, so Waddell seized another opportunity to make a difference.
"I located someone who was already organizing several nonprofits to provide financial resources, food assistance and paying for taxis when people needed to go to medical appointments while the bus shuttles were down last year," Waddell said. "He essentially already had a COAD going, and I offered to help him turn it into an official COAD for the county."
COADs partner with emergency-response teams, working hand-in-hand to support emergency-response functions through community organizations. Once those communities became official throughout the county, Waddell co-directed them with the organizer.
Initiating the COAD allowed Waddell to volunteer in other events, leading up to her attending Volunteering Organizations Active in Disaster meetings on a state-wide level.
"I ended up getting elected as the donations management chair for the state of Montana," she said. "If the state ever got mass-donations like some of the larger states did during COVID, it would be my responsibility to distribute those donations to the counties."
Remote work, social-distanced support
"Last year I started working remotely," Waddell said. "This company wanted a spouse's perspective to help spread word about military benefits to other spouses."
Waddell started off as a writer and wrote articles about how to get remote work during COVID, how to go to school, transferrable skills and remote virtual career fairs – overall aiming to funnel resources out to spouses.
Her desire and need to help the community continues to influence her, and as a result, Waddell's future goal is to advocate for programs to empower military spouses on their military journey.
"I want to encourage people to be positive and thrive in their military experience instead of thinking, 'the military is happening to me'," Waddell said. "Think of, 'I'm the one happening to the military', and here are all these resources to help you along the way."
"As military spouses, we are the lucky 1%," she said. "We have so many resources in the military and there's no other workforce out there with the benefits we have. I want to work even harder to get spouses the information they need to feel like they can conquer and if you feel like you can't, you'll at least know where to go."