Shaina Purser remembers feeling isolated and alone while caring for her now ex-husband after he left the military and their daughter, who had been newly diagnosed with autism. It was during that time that the negative thoughts began to appear.
“I just felt like I was constantly failing, and I internalized these experiences very much. That absolutely had an impact on my own health and well-being,” Purser said.
But the 35-year-old mother didn’t let those darker times take hold of her. Instead, she emerged with a newfound passion. Drawing from her personal experience, Purser now is dedicated to helping support military caregivers.
Purser’s passion for her line of work is quickly evident during any conversation. When asked about military social work, her eyes shined as she started diving into the different definitions of military caregiving, the types of care recipients get and how those needs have changed over time, especially post-9/11.
“I very much self-identify as a nerd, of course, a social science nerd as a social worker,” she said.
Through her efforts in military social work, Purser saw firsthand the important role that community plays in helping military caregivers succeed. She got involved with other organizations, such as Hope For The Warriors, which helped fund her master’s studies, the American Red Cross Military and Veteran Caregiver Network and the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, where she helped collaborate on its Hidden Helpers Report.
Like many before her, Purser didn’t see her caregiving tasks as a full-time job. Rather, they were an extension of her duties as a mother and a wife. But finding her own community helped her learn to advocate for herself and her family’s needs.
“It helped me find a sense of identity and also reframe this whole situation in a different way,” Purser said. “I felt way less alone because people [were] experiencing very similar circumstances. It made me want to fight harder to get the help. … Now I knew it wasn’t just me and my family that were experiencing these difficulties, hardships, etc. — learning that this was a more widespread issue across the military community as a whole.”
One of the people who helped Purser pursue her passion was Kristy Warren, transition case manager, military spouse and caregiver scholarship lead at Hope For The Warriors. Warren’s relationship with Purser grew from client to friend over the years, and she saw firsthand how resilient Purser was.
“With everything that she’s gone through, she used it as a way to propel herself forward and provide opportunities for other people like her, to not have to go through the same situations and have them break, but really just empower them to become better and build their resilience,” Warren said.
Purser is not one to sit still with her ideas. Instead, she leads through thoughts and actions, Warren said. Purser spearheaded efforts to create Mission Alpha Advocacy, a national nonprofit that empowers military families with disabilities and special needs, especially autism, to advocate for first-class health care and quality of life.
“She’s just a breath of fresh air and just has a really unique perspective on things,” Warren said. “What she thinks in her mind, she puts into an idea and solution, proposes it and then she puts it into action.”
Purser’s actions have earned her recognition too. In 2022, she was awarded the President’s Volunteer Service Award for her work with the American Red Cross Military and Veteran Caregiver Network. This past October, she also received the Vigiano Family Hope and Courage Award from Hope For The Warriors for her volunteer and advocacy work.
While many people have recognized Purser for her advocacy, she draws her strength and inspiration from her 10-year-old daughter, Reagan.
“Her resilience, hard work and perseverance are truly remarkable. In her young life, she has had to overcome many obstacles in a world that doesn’t always embrace neurodiversity with open arms,” Purser said. “I take immense pride in her accomplishments, and her journey motivates me to persist in both my personal and professional endeavors. The difficulties we face may be daunting, but they are not insurmountable.”
Despite all the experiences Purser and her family have weathered and the work she has accomplished in bringing awareness to the important role military caregivers play, she remains humble.
“I don’t see myself as a leader. And largely, that’s just because I just see myself doing what is right and what is needed. And I see so many others who are working alongside me in this, because it’s not an individual effort. It is very much a collective effort,” Purser said. “I feel like to call myself a leader, it doesn’t do justice to the true community and collective impact that is necessary to create change.”
Shaina Purser’s Bio
Moved to Fort Worth: 2015
Family: Her 10-year-old daughter, Reagan
Education: Bachelor of Science in Communications from Arizona State University; Master of Social Work from the University of Southern California with a specialization in social change and innovation and military social work.
Work experience: HHCC Program Coordinator at The Elizabeth Dole Foundation; Marketing & Outreach Specialist at PsychArmor; Head of Community Partnerships at Caregiving.com; Outreach Lead at Artemis ARC.
Volunteer experience: Military Spouse & Caregiver Scholarship Committee Member at Hope For The Warriors; Peer Support Group Facilitator at the American Red Cross Military and Veteran Caregiver Network (MVCN); Wellness Committee Chair at the Combined Arms Institute
Advice for someone learning to be a leader: “Leadership extends beyond giving orders; it’s a collaborative effort within a community. As a leader, be more than a boss — be an advocate, supporter, coach, mentor and builder. It’s a dynamic two-way street built on trust and collaboration. Cultivate empathy, explore team members’ unique qualities and foster growth. Embrace perpetual learning; effective leadership requires staying attuned to change. Lead not just by authority but by inspiring and facilitating the growth of your team.”
Sandra Sadek is a Report for America corps member, covering growth for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at email@example.com. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.