Louise Gustafson considers herself "kind of a rabble-rouser," but her admirers say that passion has served the Tri-Cities well for four decades.
Gustafson, 86, is a tireless child advocate who's been a driving force behind many programs and services, including Safe Harbor Crisis Nursery, the Benton-Franklin Council for Children and a nationally recognized preschool program for migrant kids.
Last week, the Kennewick woman was recognized for her dedication with the statewide Lee Ann Miller Award at the 22nd annual Children's Justice Conference in Spokane.
The retired educator quickly pointed out she shouldn't be credited for all the ideas mentioned in her nomination letter. But she will acknowledge that she acted on those ideas, pulled the people together, got others talking about them and then pushed them to completion.
"I'm just deeply grateful and probably not deserving. They said I had steep competition and I know I did because a lot of people in this state do great work jumping on other people's ideas," Gustafson said. "I have organization skills and I am not afraid to ask questions."
And she's not slowing down.
Gustafson continues to serve the community by helping run the all-volunteer staff at Safe Harbor's Sails Outlet. The upscale thrift store on Kennewick's North Fruitland Street tries to sell enough to give $6,000 a month to the organization for children and teens.
Her new trophy says "children are better" because of Gustafson's leadership and contributions to prevent child maltreatment.
Gustafson was nominated by Karen Kirk-Brockman, executive director of Safe Harbor Support Center and My Friends Place; Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller; Court Commissioner Jerri Potts with Benton-Franklin Superior Court; and Shari Gasperino, former coordinator of the Benton-Franklin Juvenile Justice Center's CASA/Guardian Ad Litem program.
The Children's Justice Task Force chose the winners.
"The reason I respect Louise is she just has a great ability to bring people together. And since she's not interested in credit, everybody respects her and people just want to be around her," said Miller, who's on the task force and helped present the award.
Gustafson, who has no tolerance for infighting, uses her strengths to get projects done, he said.
"She's an action person. She doesn't want to just talk about something, she wants to get something done," Miller said.
The award is named for a Pasco native who devoted her career to the advocacy of children's issues and was a recognized national expert in juvenile law.
Lee Ann Miller, 46, was lead counsel for the state Department of Social and Health Services' Children's Administration when she died of cancer in 1998.
Her mother Zelma Miller and brother Ken Miller still live in the Tri-Cities. Her father, Ken Miller, a former Franklin County commissioner, died last June.
The award has been given out for 14 years to individuals, groups or programs with the greatest contribution in furthering the goals of the Children's Justice Act.
Andy Miller -- who is not related to the award's namesake -- said this is the first time the individual award has gone to a Tri-Citian and it was neat because Lee Ann Miller's family still lives in the area.
"I will say it is the highest award in Washington state for being a children's advocate. I can't think of a higher award, so it really is an honor," he said.
Past group recipients from the area include the Safe Harbor Crisis Nursery in 2005 and Leo Bowman and Claude Oliver as Benton County commissioners in 2002.
Kirk-Brockman said she always wanted to grow up to be Gustafson because she's funny, "in your face" and says what she thinks all the time.
"She's a dynamo. I've never seen anyone like her, a truly amazing woman," Kirk-Brockman said. "Humble is a great word for her, but you just can't help but love her. She's truly been a great inspiration to myself."
Gustafson, an Ephrata native, started student teaching in fall1949 in Spokane. She briefly returned to her hometown to teach, then joined new husband Floyd Gustafson, a science teacher, in the Kennewick School District for a year as a junior high home economics teacher.
Gustafson worked part-time with Pasco schools while raising her son Kurt and daughter Trilby, then went full-time at Pasco High School in fall 1957. She was a home and life teacher, and part-time study hall teacher.
She returned to Washington State University over four summers in the late '60s for a master's degree in child development and early childhood education.
Gustafson then joined Washington Citizens for Migrant Affairs, and two years later was co-founder and project manager of Individualized Bilingual Instruction.
The preschool program focused on children of migrant and seasonal farm workers who would travel between Texas and Eastern Washington. They went to the families to find field workers who could be trained as paraprofessional teachers, so the students had the same teachers, curriculum and rules throughout the school year.
The project reportedly has been adopted by more than 85 school districts and preschools in nine states and Mexico, and honored by the U.S. Department of Education.
Gustafson meanwhile continued to work part-time with teacher training through Educational Service District 123. She said her career, which ended in retirement in 1989, always had an educational basis.
Gustafson helped open Safe Harbor's first nursery in 1998, even doing some of the labor herself at the small home in Kennewick. In 2005 she received the Old Woman in the Shoe award from Safe Harbor for her support.
She was instrumental in getting a child victim interview room at the Juvenile Justice Center, and promoted the need for a child sexual abuse examination room at a Tri-City hospital.
Gustafson started the Council for Children, which consists of social services representatives, mental health providers and community members who coordinate resources for children's welfare. She also has served as a children's legislative advocate.
Gustafson has four grandchildren and two great-grandkids with another coming in July.
She said she recently heard someone say that if there were as many children with chicken pox or measles as those who've been abused or neglected, people would be up in arms.
"People don't realize the extent of abuse or neglect," said Gustafson. She said it really was an eye-opener when she joined the Children's Justice Task Force in 2000, which she served on until last year.
"Every kid in juvenile justice has been abused physically, emotionally, sexually or neglected, and neglect is as bad as any of the others," she added. "I advocate for services for children that will make their lives less complicated or happier."
-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; email@example.com; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer