Standing up for women, vets
When she received a phone call from Pam Watts, who is known for finding volunteers for numerous civic activities, Consuelo Christianson believed she was about to be asked to help.
It wouldn’t have been a surprise — she often gets such calls, and usually says yes or refers the caller to someone who will.
But this time Watts, last year’s Distinguished Service Awards Woman of the Year winner, was calling to tell Christianson she would receive the honor for 2014. “What?!” Christianson replied, sure it was a mistake.
It’s the second major honor she has received this year. In March, the Air Force veteran was named winner of Soroptimist International of McMinnville’s Ruby Award, given to a woman who is making “an extraordinary difference in the lives of women and girls.”
In announcing the award, Soroptimists noted, “She inspires others to commit to what’s best for women, not only through her words, but by her actions.” Christianson explains it simply: “I want to know I helped make a difference.”
A retired first sergeant, she worked with combat radio and intelligence in the Air Force and Air National Guard from 1978 to 2002. She is proud of her career, and recommends the military to today’s young people.
The military can be challenging, especially at first, but the benefits, both tangible and intangible, she believes, make it worthwhile. “I don’t think it hits your heart until about the seventh year,” she said.
On active duty and as a veteran, she said, “I get to salute the American flag,” she said. “There’s no feeling like hearing the national anthem and saluting that flag.”
Christianson also has worked with drug enforcement and intelligence for YCINT, the Yamhill County Interagency Narcotics Team, for 20 years. The position overlapped with her final years in the service.
Sometimes she considers retiring from YCINT.
“Then I go give a talk about the drug problem,” she said. “I tell them, as a citizen, what I see, and even today, they’re shocked,” she said.”When I walk away from that, I think, ‘This is what I’m meant to do.’”
She is serious about eradicating drugs and very supportive of recovering addicts. She said she has learned from them about their struggles and how difficult it is to break the grip of addiction.
“A lot get started because they’re not aware of the consequences,” she said, relating tales of people who started with marijuana and alcohol as teens, even while in middle school, then moved to harder drugs.
Her work with anti-drug task forces could have made her cynical. She’s seen a lot of terrible things.
But she is hopeful instead. Things can change for the better, she said, if we take it upon ourselves to change them.
When she was nearly 30, she said, “It dawned on me that in spite of the bad things that had happened to me, I was succeeding. I was taking classes. I’d been able to pick myself up.”
Bad things happen to many people, and someone needs to stand up and help, she realized. “Why not me?” she asked herself.
“We can have a life after the bad stuff,” she said. “We can refuse to be held down as a victim.”
Christianson grew up in California. From an early age, she said, “I knew I wanted more out of life.”
When a military recruiter visited her school, the ninth-grader realized the service offered the right path for her.
She joined up as soon as she turned 17, graduating early in order to do so. She was the youngest in her training class, so the other women affectionately called her “Baby” and looked after her.
“I grew up in the service,” she said, noting that self-discipline was one of the many traits she learned.
After basic training, she studied Morse code and communications. She was stationed in San Antonio before going overseas to Japan and Italy.
In the minority as a woman, she soon became part of an even smaller minority as a single parent. Staying in the service was challenging in many ways, she said, but she persevered. It offered her a steady paycheck, benefits, schooling and stable housing.
Christianson left the Air Force to join the California National Guard as a combat radio operator. She volunteered for the Persian Gulf during the 1991 war, but wasn’t deployed.
In 1992, she moved to Oregon, where her children would be around their grandparents, aunts and uncles. She joined the Oregon Air Guard and was asked to serve in its counter-drug program — a full-time job coupled with the Guard’s one weekend a month, two weeks a year training schedule.
In Oregon, she also met her husband and biggest supporter, George Christianson. Her father, the late Richard Almeida, introduced them.
She and George blended their families — her two, his two and a new baby. Their youngest is now a student at Chemeketa Community College, and they have eight grandchildren.
Today, in addition to her job with YCINT, Christianson works part time for Linfield College as international student friendship family coordinator. She recruits local host families who invite college students over for home-cooked meals or include them in activities.
She has empathy for international students. “Having lived overseas for six years helps,” she said.
She also has her own business selling Thirty-One bags and other products. The company, named for Proverbs 31, gives part of its proceeds to projects that support women, a mission she wholeheartedly supports.
Helping women also led her to join the Soroptimist Club, whose mission is making the world better for women and girls. As a Soroptimist, she said, she has found more women friends.
“I’m really lucky,” she said. “They’re such caring women. They’ve given me strength that’s helped me speak out.”
Christianson also is involved with veterans’ organizations, including a group for women. She does counseling for women and families and serves on the boards of the McMinnville Area Chamber of Commerce, Yamhill Youth Opportunity Program and Yamhill County Head Start.
Her most recent project involves helping raise funds for the bronzing of a statue dedicated to local Medal of Honor candidate Leonard DeWitt, who served in World War II.