Story of the Month

May-June 2023: What’s Possible When We Say Yes ?

Kristie McLean

Kristie McLean grew up in the small midwestern town of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, population 4,000, where she lived until she was 11. For years, she says, “I thought everyone played Frisbee with their next-door neighbors, swam at the Rec center in the summers, and had toasted cheese sandwiches, tomato soup, and grape Kool Aid after church on Sundays.” Kristie took ballet and piano lessons, picked flowers for May baskets to leave on doorsteps in the spring, and planted trees on Arbor Day during elementary school. She sometimes went with her mom on Meals on Wheels deliveries, taking food to shut-ins, and she visited elders at a local nursing home through an elementary school “adopt a grandparent” program. Kristie credits that stable upbringing with allowing her to know what love felt like, and later to extend that caring to those around her.

Moving from Ohio to Oregon during middle school began the awareness that new things could be difficult. Kristie remembers walking into a 6th grade classroom where a conversation about what the “new girl” would be like was underway. “She’s from the Midwest, so she’s sure to play basketball!” Both the teacher and students seemed disappointed that Kristie wasn’t “sporty.” That first year was hard: not knowing where to sit during lunch in the cafeteria, feeling awkward during school dances, struggling through Algebra. Eventually she made friends, but then just 3 years later her dad was laid off from an engineering job, spent 6 months out of work, and the family moved again.

“I found out we were moving by getting off the school bus, walking up the steep hill, and finding a For Sale sign outside of our house,” Kristie shared. “I was furious with my father, who had both a job offer in Corvallis that would have allowed us to stay, as well as one near Seattle that required us to move. I’d finally made good friends and said I wouldn’t go. Of course we went anyway.”

Relocating to Bellevue, a wealthy suburb outside of Seattle, during the middle of 9th grade brought more challenges and insecurities, having to adapt once more. In Oregon, Kristie had been in an advanced English class and enjoyed writing, but the one at Newport High School was already full. “I already have 34 students in my class,” the teacher sputtered. “I won’t take another one.” So Kristie was put in a remedial class, slogging through To Kill a Mockingbird, and Romeo and Juliet. She used to eat lunch in the hallway by the lockers rather than facing the crowds of students and vying for a seat in the cafeteria. The curriculum tracks in Oregon and Washington were different too. Continuing the classes she’d been taking meant Kristie was placed in Biology and Chemistry classes with students a year older rather than with of her classmates. It felt lonely and isolating not having a place to belong.

Both moves, in middle school and high school, forced Kristie to adapt to new things when she felt uncertain and didn’t understand how various systems worked. Though uncomfortable, those skills later positioned her to build trust and enlist allies, whether in mud huts with rural women around the world, as a photographer and coach with corporate clients, or behind razor wire in correctional facilities. “Regardless of trappings or social standing, people want to belong, to be safe, and for their stories to matter.”

Kristie’s experience with family continued to shape her character and experiences. On weekends, her parents often headed out into the mountains to hike on local trails or have picnics at nearby waterfalls. “I wasn’t always keen to go, but those outings weren’t elective,” Kristie chuckles.

The McLean family 2002 : Mom, Dad, Kristie, Sister, 1 month before Kristie’s father died.

“My mom did her best to instill in her daughters the traditional feminine skills of cooking and sewing, canning, and knowing which fork goes where in the place setting. Dad taught me how to tie knots, change the oil and rotate tires on a car, do my taxes. At the time, all of those things could feel burdensome, but I’m so grateful now to them both for that foundational learning.”

They also taught her about responsibility toward others. “We moved to Washington because that’s where my parents were from originally. Both sets of grandparents were there, and they wanted to be back closer to family. We spent holidays and long weekends driving to and from Westport and Walla Walla, and put trunk-fulls of iris and dahlias and other flowers out on “underground family” at the cemeteries each Memorial Day.

Sundays at the Methodist church, and the surrounding activities of youth group and summer camps, were also a clear thread running through Kristie’s upbringing. “I remember one Sunday after the service and coffee hour were over and everyone else had gone home, that Dad was still busy cleaning up the kitchen. He seemed to take forever, and I felt impatient and irritated. “Everyone else is gone! Why can’t we go too?” I whined.

Dad looked directly at me. “Because this needs to be done,” he said, and went back to scrubbing the sink.

“I’ve never forgotten that moment,” Kristie said. “That was the way he showed up in the world, taking care of both big and small things that needed tending, regardless of whether or not anyone else noticed. Being the daughter of someone with that work ethic and clear expectations of right and wrong have been heavy to carry at times, but I’m incredibly grateful now.”

Kristie’s mom Kathy seemed to make connections easily through women’s circles, volunteering, and teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at the local community college. “She was always coming home with stories of people who had come here from other places, who had experienced huge hardship and risk to come to this country. She seemed so gratified by that work.”

Kristie and her Mom.

Over time, Kristie found her way, created friendships through school, band, and youth group, reignited her love of writing, dated, and moved through her teenage years with the typical bumps and complexities of adolescence. She remembers trying out for Drill Team, an elite, precision squad, at the end of her sophomore year, and not being chosen at tryouts. “I was devastated,” Kristie admitted. “My parents didn’t even try to hide the fact that they were relieved and thought it was a vain, fluffy endeavor. But you know, wanting to belong to something popular is so important in high school.”

Kristie did make the team her senior year, and it was the first time she felt like she was part of something with status. “I was proud to wear my uniform on Fridays, proud to perform at games, to ride the bus to the state competition. It feels kind of frivolous now, but for a girl from a small town in Ohio it was a big deal.” Being rejected the first time at tryouts, and later making the team brought new learning and appreciation of what it felt like on both sides of the fence of acceptance.

After high school graduation, Kristie headed off to Western Washington University in Bellingham. “I’d really wanted to go to the University of Puget Sound (a private school) since a number of friends were going there,” she remembers. “But Dad sat me down and said, “You can go to a private school and come out with a bunch of debt, or you can go to a State school and come out about even.” Eventually she realized the wisdom of that argument, and that decision allowed her the luxury of choice and the freedom of starting out in the world unfettered, rather than being saddled by thousands of dollars of debt like so many others.

Kristie originally thought that she wanted to be a teacher like her mother. She got as far as her observation in a public school before realizing that she needed experiences beyond the classroom. She was becoming clear that she wanted to create transformational moments and connections beyond set curriculum of history and geography. She wanted to be immersed in life, not constrained by it.

Both the loving family in which Kristie grew up and the challenging transitions she navigated when the family moved, seem to have fostered her emergent desire to “be immersed in life.”

While her peers took jobs and rooted themselves in successful careers and relationships, Kristie worked at various jobs, many with at-risk youth, saved money and bought plane tickets after graduation, ultimately traveling to more than 50 countries on 6 continents.

“Everything happened incrementally. It’s not that I thought I would have this big traveling life. After graduation I bought a backpack, plane ticket, and Eurail pass, and headed to Western Europe for 3 months. On the last night of that trip, when all of the youth hostels and cheap hotels in Amsterdam were filled beyond capacity due to soccer finals, I spent the night on the floor of a hostel with a dozen other people. I ended up meeting a super spunky gal named Juno from India who invited me to come visit her in Calcutta. I was so amazed by her, especially since my impression of Indian women was that they would never be off traveling by themselves. But Juno was bright and fiercely independent, dismissive of the idea of an arranged marriage and determined to chart a different course for herself. I remember saying to her, ‘I’d love to come to Calcutta, but I can’t imagine a world where that could ever be possible.’ And then, a year later, I was staying on her couch. It’s a funny world, and so much can be created if let ourselves notice the connections and possibilities.”

For a couple of years, back in Seattle, Kristie worked for a high-end travel company, both on a private luxury train that traveled across the United States and Canada, as well as helping to sell specialty icebreaker and private jet tours for high-end clients. “What I wanted more than anything was to be a tour guide,” Kristie says. “But they would bring in these outside guides to do that part. It was hard on the rest of us, since we were all working there because we loved to travel.”

So Kristie lived at home, quietly saved her money, and began reading Lonely Planet travel guides, planning her own around the world adventure. “I read a book called, “The Practical Nomad: How To Travel Around the World” that changed my life. It taught me so much about how to put together an extended journey in an economical way. In 1999, Kristie left on a yearlong solo voyage. She did another one in 2007. Both of those trips were life changing, introducing her to both the beauty and tragedies around the globe.

Ethiopian Fistula patient outside of her hut

An Afghanistan child bride greets Kristie in Kabul.

Kristie makes some friends in Begi, Ethiopia.

Kristie had the opportunity to work with a few nonprofits and to profile various social issues through her writing and photography, including clean water in Kenya, child brides in Afghanistan, garment workers in Haiti, Unexploded Ordnances in Laos, and Obstetric Fistula in Ethiopia. The latter journey sparked a personal project, and 6 additional trips back to Ethiopia since 2010, to support women suffering from this tragic, and preventable, childbirth injury.

These Kenyan women celebrate a new water tank which will provide clean drinking water for their families.

Things changed in 2014 when Kristie participated in a 6-month Restorative Justice training in Seattle. She’d learned about the power of circle work and convening groups together for powerful experiences. She began to wonder how that framework could be deepened further, in different areas. “I’d spent years focusing on global challenges around the world, and I’d started to wonder what was going on in my own backyard. I felt like I was losing touch with what was happening right here at home. The Restorative Justice work was pivotal in exposing me to the fact that deep harm and trauma could be shifted positively, and sometimes permanently, by making the time to listen to each person and each part of the ecosystem. It’s not just two people engaged in a conflict or crime; it affects families, neighbors, business owners. When people start to feel afraid, they pull back from what is different or unknown. Taking the time to build relationships and to delve into the traumas that have run through families for generations, and addressing those issues, is the only way to rewire old patterns and create something new.”

Kristie started volunteering weekly at a prison in Monroe, Washington co-leading Non-Violent Communication workshops for incarcerated men. “It was a big change to suddenly be working with men after the decades I’d spent with women. But I felt safe and passionate about the work.” Every week, the class participants shared their hearts and were willing to be vulnerable in order to learn new skills to craft a different life. “It was humbling to me that they felt safe to share and willing to divulge terrible things even to a stranger. I hope I made them feel safe too. It takes all of us, in our different skin suits and varying perspectives, to make things better.”

The Non-Violent Communication (NVC) program was a mix of volunteer outside facilitators, like Kristie, and volunteer inside facilitators. They worked together to craft weekly Wednesday classes and also met every-other Friday as part of a peer mentor program. Kristie credits that shared leadership model as one of the main reasons she was drawn to the men’s prison rather than the women’s facility. “It felt very clear,” she says.

After nearly 3 years as a volunteer facilitator, Kristie stepped away from that work. She wanted to create a different way of serving those who had experienced time in the justice system. “The reentry organizations I knew about didn’t provide services for those I’d met and learned from in the NVC classes due to specific criminal histories. People think that once someone is released from prison that they’re free and can easily get on with their lives. But that’s rarely the case, especially with those who, because of their backgrounds, struggle with accessing housing, jobs, community support, and any kind of welcome. Stigma, fear, and barriers are real things, and they contribute to homelessness, addiction, and suicide. I wanted to be part of something else, and to create a place where anyone was welcome and could find support and love.”

Members of Communities of Belonging, after a community conversation

Members of the Restorative Home share a Sunday dinner

A weekly community circle

Along with an individual who had been incarcerated in Monroe, who had been part of the weekly NVC classes, and another volunteer facilitator, Kristie co-founded Communities of Belonging. The mission of this non-profit is to build connected communities through restorative homes, community conversations, and holistic reentry support that integrate marginalized populations as a vital part of the whole.

Communities of Belonging is now in its 5th year of providing clean and sober housing, has held more than 250 weekly community circles, and hosts Community Conversations where members share personal stories and strive to create understanding and to humanize the complex social issues of incarceration and homelessness.

“It may be a long time since my Ohio days, and I haven’t traveled internationally since before Covid, but I still believe that everyone should have nourishing food, a safe place to live, and opportunities for care, contribution, and connection.
All of us can create positive impact, no matter where we are, if we simply pay attention to what, and who, shows up.”

To contact Kristie please email her at
To learn more about Communities of Belonging please visit

The 2nd Annual Walk for Belonging