Meet Jeanne Bennett, board member and co-founder of Mt. Adams Institute!

by | Field Notes

Tell us about your your journey to where you are now…

Hello! I grew up as the third of six kids with my mom and dad in a little farm town in central Illinois. At age 11, my family moved to a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. While Detroit is very urban, my town was situated at the nexus of the Detroit River and Lake Erie. This was the 70’s, right after Lake Erie had been cleaned up enough to make it safe to swim in! We often spent long hours water skiing and swimming!

After high school, I started college at Central Michigan University but was unprepared for life away from home. I chose to attend a branch campus of the University of Michigan the following year, which allowed me to work and live at home. But, half way through my junior year, my family moved to Vancouver, WA. Since I was living at home, that left me homeless! I moved in with a friend for the remainder of the school year and then drove cross-country to spend the summer with my family. Long story short – I fell in love with the Pacific Northwest, met my future husband, got married, had some beautiful babies and never went back to Michigan!

School was still a dream. Nobody in my family had gone to college, much less graduated, and I wanted to be the first. So, I started part-time classes at Portland State University, majoring in history with a minor in political science and lots of dabbling in geology. I graduated at age 32! It was a long journey but well worth it.

Then I started my career which seems a bit disjointed but does have a theme! After college, I did an internship with Congresswoman Elizabeth Furse, (OR-1) and learned a tremendous amount about the federal government and its inner workings. I worked as a case manager solving Medicare and Social Security problems for constituents. After four years and Elizabeth’s retirement, I worked for Congressman Brian Baird (WA-3), which brought me back to Vancouver. I filled many roles for Congressman Baird including casework manager, district director, and chief of staff. Most chiefs of staff live and work in Washington DC but because my family was well established in Vancouver, I was able to be in DC for 1 week each month and run the operation primarily from Vancouver. My first week on the job, in DC, started on September 10, 2001. Of course, the world changed dramatically the next day and I had a challenging tenure as chief of staff.

In 2002, I left Congress to manage a federally funded workforce development program at ESD 112. This is how I met Mt. Adams Institute’s current executive director, Brendan. I was working with low income, at risk youth in workforce development. Brendan was working for ESD 112 as a manager in the Northwest Service Academy AmeriCorps program. Together we set up a plan to offer environmental adventure programming as a way to both reward and educate youth. Our programs were mutually beneficial for our organizations and very fun and engaging for teenagers.

Fast forward to 2007 when I left ESD 112 to become the executive director at the Mount St. Helens Institute (MSHI), a nonprofit that offers outdoor education. At MSHI, we spent long days and weeks on and around the mountain, introducing guests to the amazing volcanic landscape and working to educate people regarding conservation. This brought me back to Brendan in 2011 when the Northwest Service Academy was collapsing. Brendan wanted to start the Mt. Adams Institute (MAI) and model it on MSHI. My board agreed to incubate MAI under the MSHI fiscal umbrella until MAI could be up and running on its own. That happened quickly when MAI received its first AmeriCorps grant. However, prior to that, Brendan and I worked closely together to procure equipment, plan programs and manage all the little details of a new non-profit!

My last work jump was back to workforce development as the CEO at Workforce Southwest Washington (WSW). As the leader there, I was able to integrate so many of my other experiences from federal government to work with federal and state agencies to education programs. I continued as the board chair for MAI and have always been thrilled with the workforce development aspect of MAI’s work. I have loved seeing MAI grow and develop over the years and always appreciate the board members and staff who bring so much energy and excitement to their work.

I retired from WSW in 2018 and now I’m a professional volunteer serving on MAI’s board, on MSHI’s board, as a founder of the Empower Women + Girls giving circle, and a Trustee at Clark College. It’s a joy to continue using my skills to support these amazing organizations!


What is your connection to the outdoors?

As a child, my family didn’t do much in the outdoors although I do have a clear memory of tying a float tube to the family’s Labrador retriever and having him pull me upriver! Aside from our few forays, I didn’t have much experience with the outdoors until I moved to Washington in 1983. My husband, Dave, loved to camp and taught me how to camp too. From then on, we spent many weekends in the mountains or at the beach, swimming in the rivers and lakes or hiking on trails. I came to love waking up in a tent, all warm except for my nose! My children were all raised to pee in the woods and be fine with it. Several of my kids spent long summers attending backpacking camp in New Mexico where they learned significant wilderness skills. They are all campers still!


Have you observed changes with Mt. Adams Institute over the years?

Through Brendan’s leadership and wisdom, MAI has had tremendous growth. There is a palpable belief that together we can do whatever is needed. For sure there have been challenges along the way. The organization has grown from an idea to a multi-million dollar organization in just a few years. I love the staffs’ can do attitude and the genuine care they exhibit for each other. It’s a pleasure to work with this group.


What excites you most about the future of Mt. Adams Institute?

I’m excited about the continued workforce efforts around VetsWork. This program is so needed and a great career builder for veterans. I appreciate the healing and calming aspect of working in the woods and hope that those who served can take advantage of a calm and rewarding career.

I’m also excited about environmental education for kids and adults. The issues of climate change will impact all of us in the future, and the better we understand the environment, the better we will be able to adjust to the future needs. That’s the serious part but the truth is, being in the woods, on the trails, in the mountains is just plain fun. Everyone should have that opportunity and Mt. Adams Institute is well situated to make that happen!