A mother's love: USO director continues to support Soldiers, Families
July 25, 2012
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- A passion to help Soldiers and Families has led one mother, spouse and teacher on a path to changing peoples' lives every day.
As director of USO Fort Drum, Karen Clark lives and breathes the program, and she has since the program's inception six years ago.
Her desire to help people dates back more than 30 years ago, when as a high school student, she volunteered with her cheerleading squad and her school's civic groups. Her motivation came not only from wanting to make a difference; she also saw it as a chance to do something positive alongside her friends.
After high school and college, the early 1980s brought Clark a husband, two sons and a long-lasting career as an Army Family Member.
Clark, a school teacher by trade, never saw herself doing anything other than teaching and inspiring young minds.
"I always thought I was going to be a teacher," noted Clark, who comes from a long line of educators. "When I got this job, I was amazed at how many of the teacher skills came out."
She compares hosting special events to holding a special reading day for her fifth-grade classroom, and keeping track of donations at the USO is similar to keeping a spreadsheet of her students' grades.
"I think this (being a USO director) is a natural fit, and I think it works out really well," she added.
In 2005, Clark accompanied her husband, retired Col. David Clark, on his last permanent-change-of-station move to Fort Drum.
"I literally hugged my students, left my classroom, got in the car, and we drove here," noted Clark, who was working as a fifth-grade teacher at the time.
Eager to get back into the classroom, Clark sought teaching jobs at local schools. Because the schools were not hiring teachers, she chose to try her hand at substitute teaching.
"(Substitute teaching) wasn't as fulfilling as being a classroom teacher, because you can't evoke change in the way that you can in a classroom," she explained.
Exploring more options and a more regular schedule, Clark saw an advertisement in a local newspaper for a USO director, so she applied for the job.
Since the 10th Mountain Division (LI) was one of the most-deployed units in the Army at the time, the USO headquarters staff saw a need for a program at Fort Drum, she explained.
Time passed without any word, so in the meantime, she became a parent educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension.
Clark said she never gave up on the job, and she was thankful when she found another chance to prove her ability for the job months later, while attending the Symphony in the Park, a local 4th of July celebration.
Spotting a group of people sporting USO shirts, Clark made her way through the crowd to introduce herself.
"I told them, 'I'm so glad the USO is coming because our Soldiers and Family Members really deserve an organization to be here,'" she said.
Without missing a beat, she then asked if the representatives were interviewing candidates for the USO director. When they told her they were conducting interviews, she plunged into interview mode.
Clark explained that she had previously applied for the job but never heard back from anyone.
"They asked what my resume looked like, and I told them, 'teacher, teacher, teacher,'" she said.
She continued on, noting her skill sets, such as working with a small budget and with volunteers.
She launched into her personal resume, telling the man she had 25 years' experience volunteering with the military and a wealth of knowledge about the community. Clark added that her two young sons also were in the military, giving her the perspective of a military mother, as well as a spouse.
"So, I had my interview at Thompson Park, and I could tell it went really well," she said.
Two days later she was offered the job, and she was well on her way to making Fort Drum history.
In the beginning
Equipped with a laptop computer and a passion to do something good for the post's Soldiers, Clark began the USO Fort Drum while working out of her home.
"I had to confess, I had never seen a USO on a military post before, so it was daunting to create something that I had never seen," Clark said. "I was intimidated, and I lost some sleep."
Backed with years of knowledge and experience, she enlisted the help of her Family and friends to help figure out what Fort Drum needed in a USO.
"It was a huge responsibility, and I didn't want to do it haphazardly," she said. "I wanted to make this a place the community would embrace."
In February 2007, after presenting a plan for the USO Fort Drum, Clark was given space in a building, which now stands as the Heritage Center, housing not only the USO, but also the 10th Mountain Division and Fort Drum Museum, and Off the Beatin' Path Gift Shop.
Since she did not have full funding to do the renovations she wanted, Clark asked for help from the community.
Clark's husband believes his wife has gained so much support from the community because of her personality.
"She isn't shy about meeting new people and quickly making them friends," Clark said of his wife. "I've known her since high school, and she has always been outgoing and energetic."
Soldiers, their Families, community members and Clark's friends and her relatives took charge and began renovating a room in the building that would be devoted to the USO Fort Drum. The space provided to the program has expanded, and the original room is now used to host blood drives, meetings and even baby showers.
The building was ready for the grand opening by April of that year, thanks to volunteers who gave up their Saturdays to help out, she noted.
Then, in October 2008, the main center opened its doors to Fort Drum, providing Soldiers and Families a "home away from home."
Building a unique program
"Mainly I saw USOs in airports, so that's what I was familiar with," Clark said. "I only knew of the USO's reputation, and I heard things about what they did, but my firsthand knowledge was from the airport."
Clark -- described as a "people person" by her husband -- was given the job of developing a program that would withstand the Army life, while giving Soldiers and Families a home away from home.
She commends the community's support for helping to make the program so successful.
"We're always evolving. As the war goes on and Families' needs (change), I wanted to be Gumby; I wanted to be able to bend and flex to the needs of the community," Clark said.
She said she owes much of the USO's success to the people -- while they may be few at times -- who volunteer at the center and events.
"I like to say we don't have the quantity of volunteers, but we have the quality," she explained. "It's a big task, but it's worth it in the end when you hear people comment at events. It makes all those sleepless nights worthwhile."
Where she needs to be
"I really didn't do any of this alone," Clark explained. "This is a community center, built by the community."
Clark's husband said he always saw his wife in this sort of role because of attributes he has seen in her during the years they have spent together.
Clark describes his wife as a "great USO director" who has played the roles of a "super-mom," cheerleader, teacher, dance instructor, volunteer and Army wife.
He noted she showed such an immense amount of support during his Army career, that he couldn't even begin to support her today at the level she supported their Family.
"She was always involved and looking for fun ways to make friends and help Soldiers and their Families," he added.
Clark said she throws herself into making the USO Fort Drum successful because of what she has seen through her husband's and children's eyes.
"We rarely are all on the same continent," Clark said, noting she's thankful both her children were able to use the USO when they were away from home.
Luckily, for the past year, the entire Family has been able to be together in the North Country.
"We're a tight Family -- we respect each other and we value each other. They get why I'm doing this -- the crazy hours or the nights and weekends -- because they have benefitted from the USO and they know it's good for their brothers-in-arms," Clark said.
When the Clark boys were in college and came home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, it was a given that they would spend the holiday meal at the USO, Clark explained of her sons.
"They just accepted it, because they knew what meant to the people who couldn't be with Family those days, to have the USO as an option," she said.
Her Family continues to support her through late nights, weekends, and preparing and hosting events, just like she supported her husband while he was on active duty.
"I'm not going to be returning to the classroom. … I'm going to be a USO employee as long as they'll have me," Clark said. "I have made a career shift."
Making it work
Although Clark works a flexible schedule, she said she doesn't find it difficult to balance her work and time with her Family.
"The beauty of it is that my Family is all military, so I am able to balance Family and this job," Clark said.
When the USO Fort Drum hosts events, Clark invites her Family to attend, so she is able to spend time with them, while still devoting herself to the USO.
Since the USO Fort Drum relies heavily on donations, Clark said the most difficult part about her job is seeing a Soldier's face when the USO runs out of something.
"We try to do the best that we can, but I don't have an infinite budget -- I rely on donations and volunteers," Clark said, noting that recruiting and retaining volunteers proves to be difficult at times.
She notes that being able to make people happy and see them smile makes her job worthwhile.
"I know Disney thinks they're the happiest place on Earth, but I don't know about that," she joked.
"I am incredibly blessed. I am rich -- not in dollars -- but in so many different ways," Clark added.