When Vanessa Espinosa married her husband 31 years ago, she found herself immersed in a military culture she knew nothing about.
She credits Army Community Service programs for helping her overcome that challenge, and has spent the last 25 years volunteering with ACS across multiple installations to help others do the same.
Espinosa’s efforts at Fort Campbell in 2020 earned her the Emma Marie Baird Award for Outstanding Volunteer Service, which was presented to her April 21 at Division Headquarters during a Volunteer of the Year ceremony.
“I’m excited and honored,” she said. “But at the same time, it’s not the main reason I volunteer. The more you get involved in the community, the more it helps the community grow and develop resources, and one thing I’ve seen over the years is when resources aren’t used, they can be taken away.”
Espinosa was among six volunteers recognized during the ceremony, and the only one of the group receiving the Emma Marie Baird Award.
“We ask all kinds of things from our Families, Soldiers and employees – you name it.,” said Brig. Gen. Clair Gill, Deputy Commanding General – Support, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). “But it requires all of us to lean in, and today the recognition of these six ladies is representative of so much more that happens here on Fort Campbell.”
Honoring Espinosa and others for their contributions during Volunteer Appreciation Week April 18-24 was important to Fort Campbell, said Kim Hooks, Fort Campbell ACS Community Service Program Manager.
“If it weren’t for the volunteers, so many programs and services couldn’t be done,” Hooks said. “They do so much, and they’re like the unsung heroes in the background. The Emma Marie Baird Award is just one of many awards out there that recognize outstanding volunteers.”
The award was established on Aug. 29, 1988 in memory of the late Lt. Col. Emma Marie Baird. It is intended to honor ACS volunteers for their time and energy spent providing quality programs and services to military Families.
Espinosa currently serves as the volunteer program manager for Army Family Team Building, a training and readiness program meant to help Families integrate with Army culture.
“ATFB volunteers are out there every morning letting the spouses know what’s available and talking about their program, and they’ll also go out to units if they want a specific AFTB module,” Hooks said. “It could be on stress management, it could be on communication, but Mrs. Espinosa will go out there and actually give the briefing to the units.”
Espinosa has coordinated all AFTB briefs, classes and concept blocks taught to outside agencies since 2019. She also leads monthly “I Married a Soldier, Now What” classes and biannual Command Team Spouse Courses, and has served with Army Family Action Plan as an Issue Support volunteer.
“My mission is just to keep the program going and pass my knowledge to volunteers,” she said. “Over the years it’s made me a better person, giving back and educating myself. I just hope people get more involved with volunteering and realize it can help others and the community.”
Espinosa volunteers on post three days a week, but she puts in as much time from home as she does in the classroom. That drive helped her log more than the 2,000 volunteer hours needed to receive the Emma Marie Baird Award.
“She has a real commitment to ACS,” Hooks said. “She loves ACS, she loves what it stands for and she loves teaching these classes and informing people – not only of the AFTB classes, but what’s available to Soldiers and Family members within the whole ACS program.”
Hooks submitted Espinosa’s nomination for the Emma Marie Baird award through a review process that included Installation Management Command and the Department of the Army. Her selection makes her the third recipient from Fort Campbell since 1990.
“I’ve been here since 1991, so being able to see one of our ACS volunteers earn the award is very exciting for us,” said Hooks. “The whole focus is her time that she provides to ACS. She’s not doing it for herself, she thoroughly enjoys helping Soldiers and Family members.”
Espinosa’s journey began when she married retired Command Sgt. Maj. Gabriel Espinosa, who later served as Fort Campbell’s garrison senior enlisted adviser June 2014-February 2016.
“When I got married, my first thing was moving to a different place out of my comfort zone, and I knew I had to be a good wife and learn and educate myself on what my husband did for his career,” she said. “A chaplain I met who was stationed in Korea said, ‘you need to get out and meet people and get yourself away from home.’”
That led Espinosa to ACS, where she learned something new each day about her husband’s job. Her experience eventually inspired her to use the free time she had while their son received care from Child and Youth Services to volunteer.
“Sometimes spouses lose our identities as far as what we used do be, what we used to do and what our talents were,” she said. “That was another reason I started volunteering, because I didn’t want to lose who Vanessa was – not just as a spouse, but as a person who loved to do other things.”
Working with spouses each day, Espinosa makes sure to emphasize that message.
“Even though your husband is in the military, you don’t have to stop doing what you love,” she said. “I have 31 years in military life, and I tell spouses I’ve been there, done that. What you’re going through right now, what you don’t understand, I’ve lived through the same thing and you’re not alone. There are resources out there.”
Connecting Families with those resources has remained a priority for Espinosa and her team even as COVID-19 limits face-to-face interaction. That meant adapting to the situation through virtual meetings and social media.
“We’ve been through so much here in the last year and a half, and even during COVID-19 they still come and volunteer,” Hooks said. “It might have been a little bit limited, but they stuck it out.”
Espinosa looks to continue volunteering in the years to come and may involve herself with additional programs, but she said her plan is to take it day by day.
“My goal has always been just to give back, and I don’t know anything else to do because I’ve been doing it so long,” she said. “I don’t have to, but I feel like the Lord just wants me to give back. He’s given me the capability and the strength to come in every day and do it.”