Even before the first time I arrived in Okinawa in January 2012, a friend had already recommended I check out the Marine Gift Shop (MGS) to not only shop but to volunteer. I still remember the smiling, bubbly personality, who was the Personnel Manager at the time, greeting me and helping me sign-up to volunteer on the spot. She exuded fun and after a challenging, first overseas PCS, I needed some fun, so I signed on the dotted line.
For 2 ½ years, I enjoyed so many benefits from volunteering at the shop; flexible hours, knowledge about products from four countries I had never visited, appreciation for the time I gave the shop, adult conversations, (which were lacking at home due to my young boys and a deployed husband), discounts and, in the end, lifelong friends who shared similar interests.
While “on the job,” the staff and other volunteers educated me on Asian traditions, decorating, marketing and even motivating volunteers. I gained knowledge on retail sales and shopping but I also learned to appreciate how the many efforts made at the shop, in the end, raised money to help local charitable organizations and provide education scholarships.
At the end of our tour, we headed back to the states and, as we all do, started yet another “new” life in another town. Fortunately, some of my MGS friends were in the area too so I felt a lot less lonely and the transition was easier. We all had MGS treasures in our homes which brought back long-lasting connections and memories of our time in Okinawa.
In less than two years, we received orders to return to Okinawa. This time, I knew what to expect and where I would go reconnect and spend my time, because some of my MGS “tribe” was still there in Okinawa. Of course, there were also many great new team members working hard to continue the almost 50-year legacy.
With MGS passion and experience, I was recruited to join the MGS Board of Supervisors (BOS) even before we arrived on-island. I was hesitant at first because I was not sure if I would take a job elsewhere or have other commitments, but I soon realized I wanted to make a difference helping with business decisions for the shop while also making new friends with similar interests.
Fast forward three and a half years to present day where I recently enjoyed my sixth and final Christmas opening and 12 days of Christmas sales. I can now take time to reflect on some of our progress and changes over the years before I PCS this summer. First, retail sales are an ever-changing world and I have learned a lot about what we can or cannot change, especially being a business in a foreign country on a military base. Weight restrictions were added and then removed changing the needs of our customers. Supporting the costs and staffing needs at two locations did not fit well into the budget so after years of consideration, we finally chose to close the Annex location which in turn limited storage space.
Staff and volunteer turnover every year can lead to challenges but also new ideas and opportunities. Expanding our volunteer and staff positions to all SOFA members including active duty connected our shop to a larger, very talented and dedicated population. Escalating shipping costs and electricity bills increases costs to everyone. We connected with the other gift shops on-island to share ideas so we can all succeed better, provide a wider range of products and offer more to the charities we all serve through AWWA (American Welfare and Works Association). There are so many talented people on this island who have become vendors of their products at the shop. We may not be able to control everything but what we can do is progress with the market and continue the original intent to serve our community.
During the coming new year and decade, the MGS strives to change our focus a little more toward the variety of ways our shop can contribute to our community. First and foremost, we want everyone to know the MGS is more than just a place to shop and money is not the only way we can support our partners. Our new mission and vision statements emphasize our goals that we hope to achieve.
Mission-The Marine Gift Shop exists to collaborate the efforts of volunteers, staff and vendors to sell various products from local and overseas businesses and then contribute the profits to scholarships and Ryukyuan and American charitable organizations.
Vision-To be the place of choice in Okinawa to connect volunteers, employees, vendors and shoppers with opportunities to contribute to local charitable organizations.
While we intend to continue offering a location for shoppers to buy quality products, we cannot do it without also providing an environment where people want to volunteer and serve their community. We want to help people connect with each other through volunteering at the shop which is why any SOFA status members can volunteer at the MGS. We have many options available to volunteer where one can use their various skills and available time.
The MGS needs people with skills in photography, decorating, computers, business management, organization, marketing, human resources, retail sales, cleaning, furniture moving and unpacking products among many others. If you have the desire to learn, you can gain those skills and tons more at the shop while contributing to your resume and the goals of the shop.
The more time you spend anywhere, the more connected you feel and potentially, the bigger the rewards. After spending many hours at the shop on my first tour, I saw opportunities for improvement and then realized how I could contribute by joining the MGS Board of Supervisors. Although my time commitment increased, the rewards did as well. Over the years, the BOS had to make many difficult decisions and of course, good or bad, we learned from the choices we made.
As my final year on-island is drawing to and end this summer, I ask you to consider how you can help support the MGS in our mission to continually improve our connections and contributions both in and out of the shop. We hope to increase volunteer and shopping activities, events and ways to support the community but want and need your input as well. Help us sustain and improve the legacy of the MGS by joining the team as a volunteer, associate, board member or employee. If your time is limited, share your ideas with us and continue to shop so we can continue to contribute.
Thank you for your continued support of the MGS and its mission.
Happy New Year to Everyone!
Board of Supervisors President