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Spurred by advocacy, these Clark County moms champion change for their children

Women fight for environment, moms in recovery, help for those with special needs kids

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter
Published: May 11, 2024, 6:14am
9 Photos
Karissa Halstrom and her daughter Frankie, 6, fill one of the Free Fridge. Halstrom is fighting for a more environmentally secure future for Frankie.
Karissa Halstrom and her daughter Frankie, 6, fill one of the Free Fridge. Halstrom is fighting for a more environmentally secure future for Frankie. Photo Gallery

Clark County is full of mothers who want a better future for their children. Then, there are the mothers who work toward a better future for all children. Here are stories of three such Clark County residents. Motherhood spurred their advocacy — for substance-use recovery programs, environmental protections and access for children with special needs.

Karissa Halstrom

Advocacy: Fighting for a greener world for her daughter

Karissa Halstrom, 33, parked her car, and her daughter, Frankie, hopped out of the back seat with a small box of donated food in tow.

Halstrom, a Vancouver mother, is fighting for a more environmentally secure future for her 6-year-old daughter. Halstrom’s concern about climate change started growing before her daughter was born and became more urgent afterward.

People born in 2020 will experience a two- to sevenfold increase in extreme weather events, particularly heat waves, over their lifetimes than people born in 1960, according to a 2021 Science.org study. By 2040, an estimated 1 in 4 children will be living in regions with extreme water shortages.

“It’s not just my future on the line anymore. It’s my daughter’s future,” Halstrom said.

In the beginning, Halstrom had a lot of hope that public officials or governing bodies would address climate change and other environmental destruction. But she found herself continually disappointed with the lack of progress.

“I saw people trying to tinker around the edges, and we’re not really getting the change that we need,” Halstrom said. “So I just decided to try to do what I can in my life to be proactive. What could I change that’s within my reach?”

Halstrom described herself as shy and timid as she found her footing as an activist. But over time, her voice got louder and more confident.

“Having her (Frankie) in my life and caring about her, I have to ignore those feelings and be loud and make people uncomfortable and make myself be uncomfortable,” Halstrom said.

One of the first initiatives Halstrom created was the Vancouver Free Fridge project. It aims to reduce food waste — which is a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions — as well as food insecurity by offering free food in refrigerators around Vancouver. The food project was modeled on a similar Portland initiative. Almost four years later, the fridge project has helped hundreds of Clark County residents. Alongside two other local moms, Halstrom started the Victory Garden Project, which builds vegetable gardens across Vancouver. Last year, they built a garden at the city of Vancouver’s first Safe Stay, The Outpost.

Halstrom also returned to school and earned a degree in sociology with a minor in environmental science.

“That was a turning point because I cared about climate all along,” Halstrom said. “But to actually learn … and actually understand the reality of it, it made me more confident in speaking out.”

Most recently, Halstrom started a podcast called “Everything is Fine in SWWA.”

The podcast — which touches on an array of topics from the environment to rent stabilization — is Halstrom’s platform to speak her mind and break down complex topics.

“It’s how I truly feel about things,” Halstrom said. “I really don’t have time to be wishy-washy on things. … What really motivates me for the podcast is to give people the truth.”

Halstrom paused as she loaded the donated food into a Free Fridge, and Frankie wrapped her arms around her mother’s legs.

Halstrom smiled. “There’s not a moment I want to be away from her.”

Kelly Phillips

Advocacy: Helping other mothers in recovery

Kelly Phillips, 39, slung her arm over her daughter and walked through the front door of Grace Lodge Recovery Home in Battle Ground.

A complex journey led to this simple moment.

Phillips, a Battle Ground resident, reunited with her daughter after struggling with addiction and homelessness for years. Phillips now works with other mothers as a certified peer counselor at XChange Recovery.

“I’m living the life that I dreamed of but never thought would be attainable due to my addiction,” Phillips said. “And I’m going to show people that there is hope, it is possible.”

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Phillips said her father was an alcoholic, and growing up, she told herself she would not follow in his footsteps. But when she was 13, she was prescribed painkillers from a doctor, and she ended up becoming addicted to them.

“I was so young, I didn’t even realize I was addicted,” Phillips said.

She eventually graduated to heroin and methamphetamine. Phillips lost custody of her then-4-year-old daughter, Hannah Duncan. Phillips became homeless, and her addiction worsened.

“I just stopped caring. I didn’t think I would ever be able to pull myself out of that. So I just went harder. It was my identity,” Phillips said. “I didn’t think I was going to make it out alive.”

After being arrested, Phillips learned about the XChange Recovery program for women with addiction. Once she was released, she went straight to XChange Recovery’s Grace Lodge for Women.

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Phillips recently celebrated seven years clean and sober.

She now uses her experience to help other women and mothers who walk through the doors of Grace Lodge. Phillips has stood by mothers as they went to visitations with their children. She helps them with employment and finds resources to sustain their recoveries.

“My hope working with these moms is that they never have to lose custody of their children,” Phillips said. “But we have a lot of moms that come in here and they’re like, ‘I haven’t seen my kids for five or six years.’ … But I want to give them a little bit of hope that reunification is possible.”

Phillips’ daughter, Duncan, lived with her grandmother throughout her childhood. For years, Duncan had no interest in reconnecting with her mother.

“There was too much hurt that she caused,” Duncan said.

But when she turned 18, she decided to reach out.

“It’s hard to remember why, but no matter who you are, you just want your mom,” said Duncan, now 20.

The reunification with her daughter was emotional, Phillips said.

“The last time I saw her, she was just a little girl. Then, she had grown up into this young woman,” Phillips said. “But it was amazing, and it was scary. It wasn’t easy in the beginning. There was a lot of hurt that I caused so it was a slow process. But we rebuilt our relationship. We have an amazing relationship today.”

Duncan said she has shared many amazing moments with her mom. She called Phillips her best friend.

“Now she is just so forgiving and optimistic, full of faith. She sees the best in people and in herself,” Duncan said.

Phillips tells every mother who walks through the doors of Grace Lodge, “You can do it. It won’t be easy, but there’s hope.”

“I shouldn’t be here today,” Phillips said. “But I was able to change my life, and I tell every mom who I work with that they can change theirs. It’s not going to be easy, and it’s not going to be fast. But there is hope.”

Melissa Dodge

Advocacy: Working toward accessibility for all children

When Melissa Dodge’s then-5-year-old son was diagnosed with autism, she came up empty-handed each time she looked for supportive resources for him.

“I was completely lost. I felt isolated. I was looking for support but didn’t find anything,” said Dodge, 52.

She knew if she was encountering challenges, so were others. Twelve years ago, Dodge joined forces with another local mom, Dixee Matthiesen, and created the Vancouver Autism Moms Support Group.

It started with two moms, and now more than 1,500 mothers support each other through the group.

Dodge said she is constantly on call as her work doesn’t end with the support group’s meetings.

“I get calls all throughout the night, all throughout the day,” Dodge said.

Dodge will attend individualized education program meetings with families and help parents advocate for their children at school.

Dodge’s group hosts the annual Autism Resource Fair, which mixes a family picnic with local resources for children living with autism.

The work is exhaustive at some points, but Dodge doesn’t see it like that. Dodge, a single mother of two sons with autism, said she sleeps on average three hours a night.

Doctors have told Dodge she’s overloaded. Her response: “This fuels me.”

Alongside her work supporting families locally, Dodge aims to help families statewide, too. She regularly meets with legislators and local officials to advocate for more resources for children who have special needs. She also is lobbying for a law to make parents who are caregivers of children with special needs eligible for the same kind of state payments as those who care for adults.

Although the work packs her schedule, Dodge has seen firsthand how support systems help. Growing up, her youngest son struggled with behavioral problems.

Recently, Dodge and her youngest son were chatting with another local mother whose son is nonverbal. After the conversation ended, Dodge’s son turned to her and told his mom he was going to learn sign language so he could teach the other young boy how to say “mama.”

“It just touched my heart, and it made me realize I’m going down the right path,” Dodge said. “This isn’t what I thought my life would be, but it is my life, and it is worth it.”

Dodge has bigger plans. She wants to create a nonprofit. Long term, she’d love to create a resource center that acts as an all-you-need hub for families with special needs children. She said until then, she will continue her work in showing other parents there is support out there.

“I do it because I care. I do it because I’ve been there,” Dodge said. “It takes a village, it really does. You can’t do it all alone, and I’m here to say, you don’t have to do it alone.”

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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