JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. -- Mandy Schendel, who was officially crowned Miss Washington 2012 in July, has spent the better part of her life serving others.

At 11, she started her own nonprofit organization, focused toward helping children and teens discover leadership potential within themselves through volunteer projects with their local communities.

In high school, she said, she involved herself in "everything under the sun."

So one might assume Schendel would fit in well among military men and women, who live a life of voluntary service to country.

The pageant beauty, who leaves for Las Vegas Jan. 2 to vie for the coveted Miss America title, paid her first visit to a military installation Dec. 15 when she stopped off at the Hillside Youth Center for its annual Holiday Fest event.

Though she only spent a few short hours meeting with service members and their Families, it was a stint the 22-year-old considered her "ideal holiday."

"Sincerely, it's just an honor," said Schendel, sitting, all smiles, at a table stacked high with wrapped gifts for children, a box of photos intended for autographs laid out before her. "I walk beside military men and women all the time, and I am always so compelled to just thank them.

"I have a huge love for the military, for what all the men and women do."

She explained that, for an outsider, it's typically harder to gain access to an installation, especially one the size and capacity of Joint Base Lewis-McChord. But where stories of military life and the understanding of what it takes to serve are concerned, she's not much of an outsider at all.

"I come from a long line of military Family," she said. "My mom was an Army brat growing up, so all of her stories from her childhood come from being on a military base."

Her grandfather retired from the Army, and her father served for five years.

"The dynamic with my dad and my grandpa was that they were very structured, both having been in the military," she said.

Schendel frequently travels to schools across the state, working to inspire youth as part of her pageant platform, "Do Something: Enriching Youth, Cultivating Leaders."

The goal of her platform, she explained, is to help young individuals grow through volunteer work, most of which stems from a particular passion of theirs. Some, she said, just need some sort of outlet.

"Maybe they're passionate about music, and they don't think that they can really do much with it," she said. "Well, maybe we're able to put together a team and let them lead that team to go and sing at an elderly home."

"The goal is kind of this bettering of society as a whole," added Schendel, who also described that she was often a target for bullying in high school after making strict decisions to avoid drugs, alcohol and sexual activity. "The more we have an ability to help others, I think we eliminate so many of the issues we have in society today."

But most of the young girls who went up to see Schendel weren't exactly thinking of a subject that complex. For them, the role model they saw in a happy, smiling woman in a tiara was enough.

"I really like her," said 8-year-old Sydney Flores shortly after taking a photo with Schendel. "She's very interesting and very pretty. She always smiled."

"Girls like to see somebody beautiful, because they want to be like that," said her mother, Isabell Flores, an Army spouse who brought Sydney and her other two daughters to the event.

"They thought she was a princess, with the crown," she said, adding that her girls were delighted to have a photo taken with Schendel. "I think that was a really good thing to see themselves in a picture with someone they'd probably like to be."

Flores' husband is currently deployed to Afghanistan, where he'll remain through the holiday season. It's the first of her husband's combat tours she's experienced.

But Holiday Fest allowed a time to relax a bit -- to ditch her stress.

"The kids enjoy it, and they're having a good time," she said. "If they're having a good time, I'm having a good time, too."

The event offered numerous craft booths, a station where children could make their own wooden ornaments, a rock climbing wall, a dance booth, a holiday backdrop for Family photos and a game that had children kicking or throwing a football through an inflatable goal post to win a prize.

But this year marked the first time a distinguished visitor has ever come to Holiday Fest, said Emmy Niemczyk, the facility director for the youth center, which its frequenters refer to more intimately as the "Teen Zone."

It's also the first Holiday Fest she and her staff have held at their new location on Lewis-Main, which opened for business Sept. 10.

The old center, Niemczyk said, comprised little more than a computer lab and a gym. The new one, however, boasts seven activity rooms -- to include separate homework, computer, art, music and videogame rooms -- and a gym two to three times larger than the previous one.

"This is the first time that we've had this nice, new and big environment for us to do this event in," she said, manning a table where she handed out a gift to each child who showed up. "It's just nice to see the kids and the parents come out and to put a smile on their faces."

Meanwhile, next to her, Schendel did her best to bring her own smiles to the faces of some of her younger fans.

"Thank you, sweetheart. Nice to meet you!" she said to a young boy asking for her autograph.

"So cute," she laughed as he walked away.

"To be here, and to be able to just be around these Families that work so hard and give -- it is a tremendous thing, and there's no other word than it's just an honor to be here," she said.

"I'm just fortunate that it worked out today, and hopefully there will be more opportunities in the future."