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TILLMAN TUESDAY: Military Spouse Amy Rowland’s Firsthand Experiences Inspire Play Across America Business

Pat Tillman Foundation Communications   |   By Jill Walsh   |   March 1, 2016
While relocating on several occasions due to the military and not being able to find parks during their travels or in their new neighborhood, the idea of Play Across America was born

Pat Tillman Foundation can’t fulfill its mission to empower military veterans and their spouses without the generosity of our supporters across the country. Nationwide, over 400 Tillman Scholars are striving to impact our country and communities through their studies in medicine, law, business, policy, science, education and the arts. Every “Tillman Tuesday,” we are committed to highlighting the individual impact of a Tillman Scholar, focusing on their success in school, career and community—all thanks to your support. This week we catch up with Amy Rowland who was selected in the first class of Tillman Scholars in 2009. A Military Spouse, Amy graduated from Capella University with a Master’s in Educational Psychology in 2010. With four kids under the age of seven, Amy is the founder of Play Across America while also serving as a TODAY Show Parenting Team contributor. She and her husband David are stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. where he was recently promoted to Lieutenant Colonel with Joint Special Operations Command.

HOW DID YOU AND YOUR HUSBAND MEET?

We met during his first year at West Point in 1999 on a blind date, which was actually supposed to be with my best friend but she had other plans. Being a military brat, I have always wanted to go to West Point so I went on the date instead because I wanted to see what West Point looked like. After being friends for a while he shipped off to Korea after graduation and I went to Canada. We ended up dating for four years before getting married in 2003. He was with the Ranger Regiment for a couple of years before we went to Italy for four years with a paratrooper battalion. When we returned to the states, he went to grad school at Georgetown to earn his Master’s degree and at the same time I started to pursue my M.S., Educational Psychology degree.”

WHAT DID YOU DO TO THANK YOUR BEST FRIEND FOR NOT GOING ON THAT DATE?

“I thanked her big time in that she met my husband’s best friend at our wedding and now they’re married with four kids! I’m so glad she didn’t go on that date because she’s fantastic so I’m glad he met me before he met her!”

EXPLAIN THE MILITARY LINEAGE IN BOTH YOU AND YOUR HUSBAND’S FAMILY.

“My maternal grandfather was in the Marines and my dad was in the Army for 29 years. On my husband’s side, both of his parents were in the military with his dad going to West Point, serving his four year commitment and his mom was a Nurse in the Army Reserves. Both of David’s grandfathers served in the military during WWII. One was in the Marines and the other joined the Army at the tail end of World War II so there’s a long lineage of military history on both sides of our families.”

SHARE HOW YOU LEARNED ABOUT THE TILLMAN SCHOLARSHIP AND WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION WHEN YOU LEARNED YOU HAD BEEN SELECTED TO THE FIRST CLASS OF TILLMAN SCHOLARS?

“My husband was familiar with Pat’s story because they both served with the Rangers at the same time but in different locations. My husband was trying to help me offset my student-loans and came across the scholarship and encouraged me to apply. I was absolutely shocked and thrilled to pieces when I was notified I had been selected as a scholar. On the other hand I was disappointed with myself that I wasn’t able to be involved more when I was first selected because we were preparing for our first child and then was pregnant shortly thereafter with our second and third. I didn’t realize at first how amazing it was being selected a Tillman Scholar until I was integrated into the community of scholars.”

BEING SELECTED IN THE FIRST CLASS OF TILLMAN SCHOLARS AND SEEING HOW THE COMMUNITY HAS GROWN SINCE, HOW PROUD ARE YOU TO BE PART OF THIS ELITE GROUP OF INDIVIDUALS?

“I’m completely humbled and feel inadequate as I don’t think I would be selected if I were to apply today because of all the impressive people! It blows my mind how much the community has grown. I was recently watching Good Morning America and saw the piece with Tillman Scholar Reagan (Odhner) at the Super Bowl events – it’s amazing to see what the foundation has become. I think the foundation is founded on such wonderful principles and human beings and it’s exciting to see it be so successful and all the amazing stories of the scholars.

I recall reading a Tillman Tuesday a few weeks ago featuring Heather Barnett, who had lost her husband, and I was thinking, ‘wow, what an amazing and strong woman!’. I wish my husband would read her story along with other military organizations and recruit Heather to come speak to them because she’s so strong and went through so much as far as the military and the death of her husband goes. My heart breaks for her and I think she could really help others in telling her story. She’s amazing and I hope nothing but the best for her!”

NATURALLY THE SCHOLARSHIP HELPED FROM A FINANCIAL STANDPOINT BUT ASIDE FROM THAT, WHAT HAS THE TILLMAN SCHOLARSHIP ENABLED YOU TO DO THAT YOU MAY NOT HAVE OTHERWISE HAD THE OPPORTUNITY?

“One thing was being able to attend the Inc. 500|5000 conference in October. I learned about it through the Tillman Foundation and on a whim signed up for it. The fact that the Pat Tillman Foundation helped pay the way to attend that conference and so did the Military Entrepreneur Program for Inc. Attending the conference has totally changed my mindset about work and business, because I started a website Play Across America – which is basically a collaborative platform where people can come together and find and share playgrounds. The idea is to get people to help one another, everyone gives their input on playgrounds across the U.S. so ultimately everyone can find a playground wherever they go – you never have to wonder where the playground is and if it’s worth going to. What started as a hobby is now transforming into a business.

To learn and listen to these mentors talk to you and encourage you with your journey – I just felt so supported by the Tillman community and the other Tillman Scholars I was able to connect with. It also inspired me to want to ‘pay it forward and give back’ to the most amazing network and community of people I’ve ever known.”

THOUGH THE PLAY ACROSS AMERICA WEBSITE HAS BEEN ACTIVE FOR THREE YEARS, HOW HAS PLAY ACROSS AMERICA PROGRESSED SINCE, AND WHAT TRANSPIRED THE IDEA?

“Shortly before the Inc. 500|5000 conference, Play Across America became incorporated, so I attended the conference on a mission to find someone who could help me build an app because we knew it would help make Play Across America grow.

When we were moving from Kansas to Washington state, we were somewhere in Wyoming and couldn’t find a park anywhere and I got to thinking about how nice it would be to have a website or an app that could tell me where all the playgrounds were based on my location. Then we were in Missoula, MT and I had found a park doing a Google search, which ended up being nothing more than a rusty swing set. We left the park and headed to McDonald’s and I randomly asked the woman next to me if she knew of a park I could take my kids to and she directed me to the most amazing park five minutes down the road. We lost all track of time because our kids were having so much fun playing and ultimately slept the rest of the afternoon while we were driving. My husband and I kept joking ‘somebody should have an app for that, somebody should have a website’ and finally a year later, I did it because I still couldn’t find anything out there that would show me these playgrounds.

I kept finding great parks in our neighborhood that even people who have lived there forever didn’t know about. I’m a very curious person and will explore different places and roads I’ve never been down, whereas others that live in our neighborhood wouldn’t really venture outside of what they know. Ultimately I set the website up to help them out because after a while it got tiring writing everything out for them. It just took off from there.”

HOW DO YOU DISCOVER THE PARKS FEATURED ON YOUR WEBSITE?

“Alot of times I’ll go to the local parks and recreation website and they’ll have a listing of parks in the area but I’ve noticed there are no pictures. If a website says it’s a ‘playground’ it could be an old rusty swing set with a see saw or it could be this massive, amazing playground like we discovered on our road trip. I’ve learned that people need to, and want to know that there are these spectacular playgrounds out there that I never could have imagined and it would be helpful to know which are awful so no one wastes their time. Once I would find them on the park and recs sites, I would drive to them with my kids and see them first hand.”

Featured Media_Kids at Park

YOU’VE HAD THE FORTUNATE PLEASURE OF BEING A TODAY SHOW PARENTING TEAM CONTRIBUTOR, HOW DID THAT COME ABOUT?

Anyone can contribute on the parenting stuff, you just signup and start writing. Having done a few pieces already, I’m actually waiting to hear back from one of the editors on a ‘snow day’ workout video of my kids that I posted last year and she reached out. The topic was about what you do with your kids when they have cabin fever and I submitted the video for the TODAY Show but there’s no indication as to whether or not it will be used.”

WHAT WERE YOUR GOALS UPON GRADUATING WITH YOUR M.S. IN EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGY IN 2010?

I intentionally pursued this degree because I had been counseling soldiers doing educational counseling in Italy for four years. I was determined to get my degree so that I could get the next level job and meet the necessary criteria – I ultimately wanted to run the military education center on a post. As we were moving from Kansas to Washington I was submitting my application for a position to be the Education Counselor and ultimately was rejected. Two years later the job reopened but I was pregnant with my third child and with all of the veterans applying I opted to not pursue it.

I’m not using my degree in the manner in which I expected but in a turn of events I’m now homeschooling my oldest and will do the same with our other kids. I like to do the learning theory, how people learn best, so I guess I’m indirectly applying it to my own kids’ education.”

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES YOU’VE FACED AS A MILITARY SPOUSE?

“The biggest challenge while being a military spouse, even while we were dating, is the job market – getting a job, keeping a job. While we were dating, I moved to Savannah to be with my husband and was interviewing for jobs I was way overqualified for and they would turn me down with some excuse that didn’t seem right. I realized they would do the official interview and then in talking with me after the interview they asked what brought me to Savannah and I would say, ‘my boyfriend, he’s in the military’ – I felt that’s what turned employers off. The next interview I went on, I never mentioned anything about my boyfriend being in the military and I got the job; however several months later when we got engaged, my employer hired someone to replace me without telling me.

When we moved to Italy the problem was there were so many spouses who were so educated and competing for the very few jobs available so it was hard to find employment. When we moved back to the states I tried to get my Master’s but it was hard to find a program with moving every two years, forcing  me to be creative. The hardest part is when you finally find a job that you absolutely love and the Army says it’s time to move. For me, that’s why Play Across America works out so well, it’s a job I can take anywhere and I’ll have a new place to add playgrounds.”

HOW HAVE YOU OVERCOME THAT CHALLENGE AS A MILITARY SPOUSE BY BRANCHING OUT AND STARTING PLAY ACROSS AMERICA AND CONTRIBUTING TO THE TODAY SHOW?

“I think in some ways it was one of those  things where I was happy to be a stay-at-home mom but I realized something was missing. That’s why I started the website, as an outlet and started writing the blog on the website and contributing to The TODAY Show – it was mostly because I needed an outlet. I had all these ideas but didn’t have any other adults to talk to during the day. Play Across America is something I can see that I’ve done that I feel is productive and I can grow, though I’m terrible at the business side of things. On the other hand, it challenges me in a way that I haven’t been challenged before and I look at this as an opportunity to never be constrained by our location. I’m motivated and it gives me the opportunity to be with my kids and have them be part of it so I really want it to succeed.”

WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU AND PLAY ACROSS AMERICA AND EVERYTHING ELSE YOU HAVE ON YOUR PLATE?

“On March 3 our new website will launch and by the end of the month the app will be ready for release so that is huge, thanks to the people I met at the Inc. 500|5000 conference in October. I’m holding my breath in excitement and fear because we’re kind of hinging everything on this because with the app it can really grow. The hope is that in the next couple of years it will be a brand that people recognize. I’m trying to be creative with my marketing so doing things like writing for the TODAY Show helps to get the name out there and create awareness around Play Across America. Just for fun I posted an article on my blog, ‘Ten Statements That Only Military Spouses Might Find Optimistic’. I did it for my own pleasure and it went viral, getting 7,000 views in one day followed by 6,000 the next. It was fun to see what resonates with people. We hope to start ramping up our advertising for Play Across America with the hopes of generating revenue.”