Lead with a Whisper

Kristin Reese empowers others in supporting role

Story and photos by Drew Myron

Kristin Reese serves as manager of Mt. Hood Town Hall, a mentor to area youth and an activist for social justice.

Everyone loves Kristin Reese, but she doesn’t want to hear it. Though she has earned awards, fellowships, and adoration from area youth, Kristin turns from attention.

“Oh, I don’t want to talk about me,” she says, in a practiced pivot. “I want to talk about the kids.”

For decades, Kristin has worked behind the scenes, creating links between youth and business leaders through mentoring, service learning, and community action. Her “kids” are the hundreds of teens she has nurtured and guided through two pivotal local programs: Leaders for Tomorrow and Hood River LEOS.

“I love my kids! I’ve had 400 of them— well, 800, if you count both groups,” she says. “I’ve been a community organizer all my adult life. Empowering young people to shape their futures and their community is my passion.”

Kristin has dedicated heart, soul, and endless hours to Leaders for Tomorrow— a program she has organized, found support for, and advised for nearly 20 years. The program aims to connect high school students to leaders from a variety of Gorge industries, from agriculture to manufacturing to health care and more.

The students plan, create, and complete a project to benefit the community. Projects have ranged from painting the women’s shelter and landscaping the local library to building and installing community book boxes throughout the county.

“She has a magical way with the kids,” says Tom Schaefer of Odell, a friend and mentor who works with Kristin. “They can feel that she loves them and respects them. Kristin gives them the opportunity to make decisions. The kids feel ownership and they feel power.”

Three years after high school graduation, Esme Manzo, 20, still carries that power. In the program, youth are introduced to local business leaders and gain deeper awareness of operations and opportunities. Esme, who grew up in Odell, spent a summer packing fruit at Hood River Cherry Co. in Pine Grove.

Kristin stands with Women In Black, a group that meets every Friday in downtown Hood River to stand in silence for peace and justice.

“It helped me feel connected to another part of my community, and it really expanded my point of view,” Esme says.

Now a junior at University of Oregon, Esme is studying environmental justice.

“Kristin put a seed in my brain about it,” she says. “Kristin gives us the building blocks to make decisions by ourselves but also gives us the support. She was an amazing mentor in high school and is now an amazing friend.”

In 2018, Kristin earned the Soroptimist Women of Distinction Award for her commitment to and management of the Leaders for Tomorrow program.

Graduates of the program are all across Hood River. Kristin keeps a mental list.

“The owner of Waucoma Bookstore, Gorge Fly Shop, Lucky Littles, Cody Orchards,” she says. “It blows me away what these kids have accomplished. I’m not saying there’s causation, but there’s correlation.”

For more than a decade, Kristin has served as adviser to the local Lions Club youth program, Hood River Valley LEOS: leadership, experience, opportunity, and service. The community-based program engages youth in a variety of service projects, such as can and bottle drives to raise money for local food programs, including FISH and Meals on Wheels.

Raised in Ohio, Kristin attended college in Michigan, then headed west to work in environmental education. In Oregon, she met Stan, to whom she’s been married 28 years. They moved to the Gorge in 1998 and spent several years living on a communal farm in Hood River before moving to Parkdale in 2004.

Though she has a heart for kids, her dedication doesn’t end at youth. She works as manager of Mt. Hood Town Hall, is devoted to animals—especially strays—and is committed to social justice.

Every Friday, she stands in downtown Hood River with Women In Black. It’s a silent protest she’s taken for more than three years.

“We stand for peace and justice every Friday from noon to 1 p.m.,” Kristin says.

Women In Black is an international organization that started in Israel with Jewish and Palestinian mothers standing together in silent witness to the horrors of war and injustice. Kristin started standing after the killing of a peaceful protester in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017.

Kristin's shoes with the word Peace written on them
“I’m a hippie at heart,” Kristin says. “You have to work, you might as well do something that makes a difference.”

“I wasn’t sure what they were doing until I saw the banner ‘For Justice, For Peace,’” Kristin says. “I’m for that! But it still took something like the murder in Charlottesville to get me out of my car.” In many ways, taking a silent stand—a supporting but unspoken role—is Kristin’s instinct.

“She does a wonderful job of walking alongside people, encouraging them to take action,” says Ruth Tsu, who in 2015 cofounded the local Women In Black chapter with Lani Roberts. “She knows so many people and so many generations. She can do the upfront-and-center work, but she prefers to take a supporting role. She really creates an environment where people learn a lot.”

Along with her youth work, Kristin has served 25 years as a volunteer with Friends of Multnomah Falls, where she leads hikes and interpretive talks. She is past president of Hood River Lions Club and a Ford Family Foundation Fellow for three years running. A graduate of Ford Institute Leadership Program’s first Hood River County cohort, Kristin served as a community ambassador and attended advanced facilitation training.

While the pandemic has changed routines, the need for community remains strong.

“People understand now the value of human relationships,” Kristin says. “It’s important to slow down, care for your neighbors, take care of each other. When you feel connected to community, you want to make it better, and you want to make it bigger than yourself.”