Skip to main content

Episode 165: How Volunteer Work Enabled a Military Spouse's Return to Work, with Karen Golden

Karen Golden headshot

Episode Description

Military spouse Karen Golden walks us through her career path in detail as she moved her family 12 times. She is currently living in her 17th house! Karen discusses her failed attempt to get licensed as a social worker, and how she pivoted to relaunch as Deputy Director, Government relations, for the Military Officers Association of America. In this role, Karen covered military family issues in an advocacy and training role for military spouses, after years of volunteering in similar roles. Hear about her surprise phone call that she calls the most important call of her professional life, in the Walmart parking lot of a famous city around minute 18. Karen tells us how her advocacy and training skills and passion for the cause led her to her current role at the Alzheimer's Association.

Read Transcript

Carol Fishman Cohen: Welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice, and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the chair and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. Today, we welcome Karen Golden. Karen is a military spouse who worked as a social worker, but never got licensed because of her frequent moves.

We're going to talk more about that. Karen relaunched her career at the Military Officers Association of America as deputy director, government relations, covering military family issues, including spouse employment. After years of strategic volunteering as an advocate educator and volunteer manager in military family organizations.

During her husband's active duty career, Karen and her family moved twelve times, including an international post. Karen, welcome to3,2,1 iRelaunch.

Karen Golden: Good morning, Carol. Thank you so much for having me here today. I look forward to talking to you.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Thanks. Karen, let's start by talking about your career before you became a military spouse and began changing locations on a regular basis.

Karen Golden: Sure. So I'm going all the way back to the beginning. Always knew I wanted to be a social worker. Went to graduate school for my MSW. I was a year into graduate school in Chicago, Illinois, when I met my husband, my soon to be husband. He was a Marine stationed in Jacksonville, North Carolina, and during my second year of graduate school, he deployed, he went overseas out on ship for six months. When he came back I had graduated from graduate school. I had started my job at a private psychiatric hospital in Chicago. And shortly upon his return from deployment we were engaged. Prior to meeting him, if you had asked me, "Karen, what do you plan to do with your MSW?"

I would have said my goal would have been to be the director of a social work department at a large hospital in the Chicagoland area, have 2.5 kids and live within five miles of my mother. And that went out the window when I met my husband. During our engagement, I was working for a year at a private psychiatric hospital in Chicago as a unit social worker, just honing those wonderful skills.

And I thought, "Gosh, this is great. I'm on the path." We got married and made my first move to Jacksonville, North Carolina. I was fortunate that I was able to start working almost immediately. I was picked up as a contractor for the advocacy program that was new, sponsored by the Marine Corps at Camp Lejeune, assessing families that had been brought to the attention of the military, assessing the situation for domestic violence or domestic violence incidents at the time. When I left Chicago, I had been working for a year. I did not have enough hours yet to sit for a certification or a licensure exam. I was starting to amass those supervision hours.

So when I moved to North Carolina, of course, I'm young and I'm relatively naive about the process. I thought that I would just continue that with my new position, only to find out that my supervisor was not qualified. She did not have the appropriate training to supervise me, to provide me supervision hours. So I thought, okay. we'll figure this out. And within a year, my husband received orders and we moved to California. And by this time I'm now pregnant with my first daughter. We get to California, we settle in, I have my daughter and I'm like, "Okay, I'm ready. I'm ready to go back to work."

I don't have licensure in Illinois or North Carolina. I don't have enough hours to test in the state of California. What can I do? I'm at home and I have a young baby and I don't know anyone in the state of California. How can I use these skills? So I sought an opportunity to work with a military relief agency, Navy Marine Corps Relief Society. They provide financial support to military families.

So, it's a lot of casework. I can do that. I'm a trained social worker. A lot of casework, a lot of resource and referral identification and not direct mental health counseling, a lot of counseling on situations. So during this time, when I'm working for the Navy Marine Corps Relief Society, I'm learning a lot about the military. I'm seeing a lot of the gaps. I'm seeing some of the challenges our families are facing, particularly our younger families as they're moving around. And of course they're with us because they have emergency financial needs. I truly learned a lot about my new military community.

Lo and behold, I find out I'm now pregnant with my second daughter. And,it's the conundrum I think some families face, childcare would be very expensive. We're out in California. So I decided at that point that I'm going to step away from my position running this office in California. That lasted about eight weeks. And I thought what can I do? The Navy Marine Corps Relief Society worldwide has maybe 500 paid employees. I was very fortunate to be one of those paid employees, but they're really volunteer powered and volunteer driven. So I thought, this really aligns with my skill set, and it really aligns with my interest in serving my military community. So I came back on board as a volunteer, in part because they covered childcare. How can you beat that? A volunteer position, you've got two kids.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Very unusual.

Karen Golden: Particularly considering this as this is quite a while ago. Again, we move this time for a short period of time. We were in Oklahoma of all places for seven months, and just not enough time to settle into any type of position. After seven months we're now moved to Hawaii. In Hawaii, we settled in and I had actually started to pursue going back to work as a social worker. There’s large, amazing hospital systems on the island of Oahu.

And I remember going into one of the interviews at the hospital system that shall be nameless. And at the end of the interview the gentleman asked me, he told me, he said, "You're qualified," obviously I needed to work towards licensure. "But you're very qualified. You have a wonderful education. But why would I hire you? You're going to be leaving." You cannot do that today. That's not allowed in the interview process today. But that was my first stinging realization that as a military spouse, it was going to be incredibly challenging to continue in my career to combat some preconceived notions that maybe the civilian marketplace had about military spouses.

And yet again, an opportunity to potentially pursue licensure was going to elude me. During my time in Hawaii, I went back to the Marine Corps Relief Society as a volunteer again, that wonderful paid childcare, and really honed my leadership skills. They have leadership opportunities within their volunteer base. It allowed me to lead a core team of volunteers, again, using my social work skills in training and advocacy, public speaking, all those great transferable skills, keeping them fresh and up to date, all the while learning even more about my military community. And again, the challenges, not only I was facing, but our military families were facing.

From Hawaii we moved to the east coast and my son joined us when we arrived at the east coast. Similar situation, we settled in Massachusetts, everything was settled. There was great opportunity for wonderful childcare. And so I start looking at the potential for returning to work and face similar challenges as I interviewed with civilian employers. I'm lacking the licensure and there is that notion that you're not here to stay, you're basically a transient person.

After Massachusetts, we went on to Rhode Island. Again, continued volunteering at different aspects of the military community. Moved down to North Carolina following that. My children are starting, at this point, they've entered school, which makes it a little easier to return to work. And now I've moved through multiple states, my initial social work clinical skills, they're actually a little rusty. There have been multiple updates to very critical information that social workers need in terms of diagnosis and treatment and methodology, and I haven't kept up with that, nor do I have the hours of supervision, not even close to being eligible to sit for licensure.

So at this point I decided to look at what seemed like two paths during our time at Camp Lejeune. How do I support my military community? My husband is in a leadership role now, how do I support that role? And how do I take all these skills I've amassed and potentially take them into the workplace in a way that's good for our family?

So I was very engaged in the Military Family Readiness Program. It's a volunteer program, a lot of training to support families as they face the challenges of deployments, whether it was for training and, at this time, obviously our Marines were headed into war. So, again, a lot of wonderful training opportunities, leadership opportunities, working with military spouses, learning more about the community, and again, the challenges the community was facing.

On the profesional side, I was hired by the Onslow County School in a teaching position, a part-time teaching position, English as a second language, wonderful opportunity. Again, training and teaching, really using those transferable skills.

We moved on then to Alabama, from Alabama, we moved overseas to the Republic of Korea. While we were in Korea, again, I used those skills I had garnered in North Carolina to teach both at a Korean elementary school, and then ultimately for the Department of Defense High School there in the Republic of Korea.

Wonderful opportunities. Not the career path I would have chosen, but again, using those skills, training, advocating, always volunteering while I was working, learning more each time about our military community, and the challenges not only my family was facing, but other families were facing. We returned to California from Korea, and I knew it was time. I really wanted to restart my career.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Karen, I want to interrupt you right there and ask, was this the point at which you were starting to think that maybe you were not going to end up going into social work?

Karen Golden: So I think when I realized that social work was out of the option, was completely eluding me, was when we had lived in Massachusetts. At that point we had been married almost ten years. That's when I realized that it was going to be challenging at best. It would require us being in one place for several years where I could fully dedicate myself to a full-time job, so I could receive that important supervision. And I also realized at that point, too, that it would require going back to school and just really brushing up, again, on those things that had been happening in the clinical world, the coursework that would be necessary to make sure I was sharp and ready.

So twenty years into our marriage, we arrived in California following Korea. We also arrived at the time of the recession. And for anyone listening, if you were in California in 2008, 2009 it was terrible. I mean a terrible economy. And unemployment in our county, I think unemployment was running, it might've been running around 17%. PhDs that had current experience were out of work, and along comes a military spouse who has been in and out of the the workforce and re-imagining herself, it was not a good environment to find myself in.

So in California, again, started the interviewing process and went through all of that, and was facing rejection at this point, because I had been out of the social work field and had not been working in that field, didn't have the licensure. So I started to hone in on organizations that supported the military and supported military families.

I realized that that was the passion that was driving me. At the core of a social worker's heart, I believe the core of my heart, I have always felt strongly about advocacy, teaching people, how to use their voice to make a difference whether it's in their family, their community, or, on up the ladder of leadership maybe within the military or within the government. Felt very passionate about that.

And I also felt that I was good at it. When someone had a challenge, I've helped them navigate through those processes to elevate their concerns. In California, again, bad job market. So I became involved as a volunteer with the National Military Family Organization because they elevate the voice of the military family. And was very interested in everything they were doing.

I started volunteering with them as a remote volunteer. I'd go out and do some public speaking on behalf of them. I would go out to listening sessions and town halls and report the information back, almost as if you were a person in the field reporting back to the headquarters. And I loved it because I felt I was making a difference for our military families. I was also continuing my volunteer support of Marine families, our Marines, my husband was in Afghanistan for the year.

So again, very involved in those military family support programs. But I really felt with the National Military Family Association that this was making a difference. It was volunteer work, but it was making a difference.

As we're preparing to move to Virginia, a Marine spouse, friend of mine had seen all the posting I had been doing on Facebook. How I was letting military families know about things that were happening, legislatively or with their schools or within their community. She saw that I was out there posting information, advocating for military families as a volunteer. And she said, "My friend is leaving her position at the Military Officers Association of America. She does something but she does it for pay."

Carol Fishman Cohen: There you go. That critical difference.

Karen Golden: Yeah. That's a very good thing. At this point, I have children going to college now. She said, "If you send me your resume, I'll send it to her." And to everyone listening, that networking is key. Networking is key. People need to know you're looking for a job and they need to know where you're going. I said, "Sure. Give me a day or two to update it and I will forward it onto you. And if you can share it. Sure. that's wonderful."

And so she did, she shared my resume with her friend who was a military spouse, who she herself was moving. I received a call from her, the gal that had the position, and she asked me about my interests, what I had been doing. I explained my long winding career path. At the end of the day, I told her, I said, "My passion is for military families. That's the one thing I can tell you is I'm passionate about serving my military community. I know I have the advocacy skills, the skills and training from my social work degree."

And that's the theme that, looking backwards, is woven through everything I've done, it's about service. It's about advocacy. It's about elevating someone's voice again, whether it's a neighbor, a military member. That really has been, looking backwards, the consistent theme throughout my professional and volunteer life. So she shared the resume. We packed up our house and I really didn't think anything of it. I thought I’d have to wait until I got to Virginia and I'd have to hit the ground running. We packed up the car, we started driving, and I kid you not, this is God's honest truth. We were in Winslow, Arizona, with the song Winslow, Arizona.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Like the Eagles' song.

Karen Golden: We're in Winslow, Arizona. I tell everyone this story, it's Winslow Arizona in the parking lot of the Walmart and my phone rings. And I can see it's a Virginia area code. As a military family that is in the middle of a move, I think this must be about military housing in Virginia. So I decided to answer that call, the most important call of my entire wife that I have ever answered.

On the phone was the gentleman that went on to become my boss and without a doubt, my mentor and advocate for my professional career. And he said, "I've received your resume. Thank you." And he introduced himself and we talked a little bit. "When can you be in Virginia?" I'm in Winslow, Arizona, in the Walmart parking lot.

Carol Fishman Cohen: That's great.

Karen Golden: It's going to take at least five days to get there. So he said, "If you can get here next week I would like to interview you." And of course I said, "yes." And I couldn't at this point even remember what our plans were for going cross country. So I told my husband, I said, "We're going to have to," we were headed to South Carolina to see family, "we're going to have to cut that short and go straight up to Virginia." I said, "I can't miss this opportunity for the interview." And we get to South Carolina, again, note to self, I have no interview clothes with me, because I had not planned on this. It's summer. I ran to the local store in South Carolina, next to impossible to buy interview clothes off the rack that will fit.

So I grabbed a dress, not modeling any of the good tips I'm sure people give people when they're returning to work. Just a decent dress and a decent pair of shoes and a purse, because I didn't have one of those either. And we make our way to Virginia, and I go for the interview and meet the gentlemen again, who would go on to become my boss.

Two hour interview and he says "Let's go to lunch. Let's keep talking." And he said to me in the interview something that I've said to a lot of people that are returning to work and they're not sure, do I have the right skills? Do I have the right training? Do I have the right background?

And he said to me, "I can teach anyone the legislative process for this position," because it was a government relations position. "What I can't give someone is the passion and the drive." And he said, "You have the passion and the drive to serve your community." I left that interview smiling.

I honestly didn't think I would get the job, but I felt in that moment that I had been validated for everything that I had done to serve my community. I felt someone had read my resume and recognized that. I wasn't dismissed as someone who was transient, who didn't have useful skills, who may or may not have something to offer. I felt validated. I felt very validated. I became more validated that night when he called me and he said, "I want to offer you the position." And they offered me the position and it truly changed my entire career trajectory. In that moment, accepting that position, someone was willing to take a chance on me and it changed my trajectory. And as I told my boss five years later, I said, "In that moment, when you hired me," I said, "in my head, I vowed I'd work harder, faster and stronger than any person he had on his team," to validate for him that I definitely had the capacity for this position because it was quite a climb up the ladder.

So that's how I ended up at the Military Officers Association of America.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So how many times did you move at that point?

Karen Golden: So we moved twelve times during my husband's career. My husband was on active duty for over thirty years, and he had been on active duty, of course, when I met him. So we moved, I believe it was twelve times if I'm counting correctly. This is the fifteenth or seventeenth home that we're living in right now.

Carol Fishman Cohen: That's a lot of moving.

Karen Golden: Yeah. A lot of moving. And for military families, that's average. I tell my children often, it's nothing special in the military community, that's actually average. That's the average amount of moving someone will do across their career.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Kare,. I want to distinguish between the time when your husband was on active duty and you were moving around, and the time when he was going to retire, and you knew that you would be in one place for a long time. Was the Virginia move a time when you knew he was going to retire or for some reason you knew you would be there for more of an extended period?

Karen Golden: So we knew that move, because of the position my husband had accepted, we knew that move would be at least three years. We also knew that the move could be the move he retired from. So we knew there was an opportunity to be in that area. There's a lot of opportunities for the military in the national capital region.

I knew at a minimum, I knew, my future boss did not know, nor did he ask, I knew that I could be in the national capital region for at least three years.

Carol Fishman Cohen: In addition to the professional themes that ran through all that you did during the years you were moving, advocacy, training, elevating military families, it seemed like strategic volunteering was also a theme and had a dominant role in your experience during that time.

Karen Golden: Correct. And again, as I started my path at the Military Officers Association of America and military spouse employment was part of my portfolio, addressing licensure challenges that I thought I understood, but looking back through my career, it was those very key and strategic choices that spoke to my heart in terms of volunteering in a way that brought my skillset to the table, helped me hone those skills, helped me learn new skills and provided me some leadership opportunities. So also while I was not on a paid career path, it really did feed my soul for the right time at the right moment.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So what has your career path looked like since you relaunched at the Military Officers Association of America?

Karen Golden: I was at MOA. I had that itch, more of the advocacy itch, I was missing that piece. And an opportunity presented itself last January with the Alzheimer's Association, they were looking for an advocacy manager for the state of New Jersey.

And for those that are not familiar, the Alzheimer's Association is the leading volunteer health organization in terms of Alzheimer's cure, support and research. They have volunteer advocates across the entire country, in every state, that engage with their state officials. And they engage with their congressional officials, both representatives and senators to effectively move the needle on legislation, policy and regulation in terms of support and care for those living with the disease and their families. Bespoke to me because I have a sister who is fifty-two and she was born with downs syndrome, but is now also living with mid to late stages of Alzheimer's, not uncommon in that population.

So this opportunity, again, spoke to the advocate's heart in me. It's obviously a little different service than that to my military community. But I thought this is another opportunity to work and engage with people, to teach a new group of advocates how to effectively use their voice, tell their story and make an impact now on this dreaded disease. That's where I am today, working with the Alzheimer's Association, greater New Jersey chapter.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So Karen we're running out of time now, and I want to go to our final question, the one we ask all of our podcast guests, and that is what is your best piece of advice for our relauncher audience, even if it's something that we've already talked about today?

Karen Golden: I think that's a great question. And I think I've said it multiple times throughout the conversation. I think it's key when you're on a career break to stay active, to stay engaged and to look for those, you say it best, Carol, those strategic volunteer opportunities. That truly served a twofold purpose for me. Number one, it fed my soul. Very important that it gives you a sense of purpose and a sense of accomplishment. It feeds your soul and drives your passion. I chose opportunities that did that, but also used my skill set, and helped me hone my skill set, develop new skills, and in my skills, using those fundamental social work skills, advocacy skills. I think when you combine those two things and you find that strategic volunteering opportunity, I do believe that your career breaks, then you can use that during that time, they become very meaningful.

They're meaningful on a resume. They will help you get noticed. And I think they will serve you well, when you do engage in workforce reentry.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Please tell our audience how they can find out more about the Alzheimer's Association, where they can also do strategic volunteering.

Karen Golden: Sure. And thank you for asking. Definitely. If listeners go to A L Z dot O R G, that is the Alzheimer's Association website. And there you can learn about different upcoming events, news, there's information on the helpline, if that would be of a need to you or your family. And there is a listing of all of our volunteer opportunities, both in terms of advocacy and in terms of community education, programs and services.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Thanks for joining us today Karen.

Karen Golden: Thank you Carol so much. I really appreciate you having me on.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And thanks for listening to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice, and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the chair, and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. For more information on iRelaunch conferences and events, to sign up for our job board, and access our return to work tools and resources, go to

And if you like this podcast, be sure to rate it on Apple podcasts and your favorite podcast platform, and be sure to share this with a friend on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media.

Thanks for joining us.

New to our podcast?

Find out more about our most popular episodes and content of the 3, 2, 1, iRelaunch podcast!

Don't relaunch alone!

Join our growing relauncher communities on Facebook and LinkedIn. For more great guidance on your relaunch and updates on when return to work programs are accepting applications, events for relaunchers and more, be sure to sign up for our Return to Work Report and follow us on social media to stay informed!

Icon community