From Energy Information Specialist to the Director of Financial Stability at SNAP in just eight years!

After selling her successful business of almost 20 years, a Mexican restaurant called “Chimayo” in the San Juan Islands, Karen was looking to start her “Chapter 2” as she called it. Although she began working in restaurants after college, her degree from Penn State was in social work, specifically in social science and the study of human behavior. She says that she has the “mind of a scientist, and the heart of a social worker.” So, it only made sense that the next chapter in her life would involve non-profits. After moving to Spokane, Karen volunteered at Transitions, being already familiar with culinary-based nonprofits and restaurants. It was there that she first learned about SNAP.

Karen began her SNAP career as an Energy Information Specialist at East. She attributes mentorship from SNAP coworkers as one factor to her success. In this first role, Karen worked alongside Rachel Galbraith. “She had the big desk, and I had the kid desk behind the door,” Karen says with a smile. “She took me under her lovely angel wing, and she really made me love my job at SNAP.” It was in that office that she also got to work with notable SNAP legends like: Mary Westerman, Marianne DeMarco, Talesha Roberson, Marie Shields, and Marilyn Reilly. They supported her not just as coworkers, but also as friends and mentors. Karen reminisces, “They made me feel like family… They just really made me feel a sense of community. It really helped me connect with the community at large in Spokane.”

In her time at East, Karen learned about as many SNAP programs as she could. She discussed business development with Dave Heyamoto and worked with other leaders such as Chris Johnson, Kerri Rodkey, Chris Pasterz, and Lucy Lepinski. Karen displayed a willingness to learn new things and take on projects as they came up, learning program reporting, program management skills, and grant writing – all skills that would later help her obtain this leadership role.

From grade 6 and getting sent to the principal’s office for standing up against injustice, to going into college to become a lawyer, to later working at SNAP, Karen has always had an acute sense of justice. In her first SNAP role, Karen met people at different levels of crisis than she had previously experienced. While hard, it also taught her the importance of making people feel seen and heard. Providing opportunity to people in our community and treating them with respect and justice was not just a core value at SNAP, but also for Karen personally.

She’s also a born entrepreneur, and growing up, Karen had a goal to launch her first business by the time she turned 30 – which she did! She describes the feeling after her first launch as completely overwhelming – a mix of pride, potential and accomplishment.

It is this combination of personal values – teamwork, justice, and entrepreneurship – that drives Karen in her work as SNAP’s Director of Financial Stability. To be able to work with clients – help them launch their own businesses, help them buy their first homes, or help them learn and grow through financial education – Karen says, “that’s so self-empowering! To even play a small part in helping them achieve their dreams.” Karen and her team work to provide economic equality and build up their clients’ sense of self-worth. Karen calls this approach within her team: Essential Okayness. It’s a feeling we all deserve to have, she says, where “we essentially belong. We are essentially okay. We are accepted, no questions asked.”

Karen expresses that her team is so smart and brings a wisdom and knowledge base that cannot be replicated. That is one of her team’s greatest strengths: their rich and full experience outside of work that they bring to help their clients. And they are excited for the trajectory of SFA over the next few years. “If you told me a year ago that this year we’d deploy 3.1 million dollars,” Karen says, “I’d be like ‘Cool, how do we do that?’ but we’re doing it!” SFA is working toward ramping up operations and ensuring they continue to execute their vital role in the community and help with ongoing economic recovery.  As Karen guides SFA through this goal, a few things are certain: she will lead with justice and humility, she will work collaboratively, and she will bring her entrepreneurial spirit and work ethic to lead her department.

When asked, Karen wants her coworkers to know that she has an eerily good ability to recall song lyrics from any decade and genre – you can test her! Outside of work, she is an avid reader (literary fiction novels mostly), a lifelong dog-lover (and owner of a sweet dog named Stella, pictured left, who she says is “part golden retriever, part orangutan”), and uses outdoor activities (like her daily walks in Manito park, skiing, gardening, and boating) to help her find personal balance in life. She is also still a chef, and she encourages other foodies to always pick the best and freshest ingredients and do the least amount to them for the most fantastic results. Plus, a healthy amount of wine for the chef is the secret for culinary success! Karen loves making homemade pizza every Friday with her fiancé, which was the first date meal they made together as high school sweethearts. She credits her mother for reconnecting them (and you can enjoy their adorable photo above from their time ice-skating at the Numerica ice ribbon downtown).

Karen especially wanted to answer the Staff Spotlight question asking, “if you could invite any three individuals to dinner, who would you pick?” She said: Maya Angelou, Tom Petty, and Julia Child, of course. Julia Child would cook because “how can you be in the kitchen and not do Julia’s famous roasted chicken?”

Whether cooking at home, bringing small businesses to life, or helping her SFA team share essential services in our community, Karen has had an amazing career path so far. Her success comes from her personal values, working hard in every role, seeking answers, applying the lessons gleaned from her mentors, and stepping up to the plate whenever challenge arose. SNAP and SFA are lucky to have her and so are the clients they serve.