Ken Kirn didn’t think he had many options after graduating from his small-town high school. Most of his friends were getting blue-collar jobs or enlisting in the service.
Up until then, Ken thought college was a path for other, more capable students. Thankfully, he had an incredible mentor who saw his potential and guided and encouraged him. He helped Ken find his place at a nearby community college, which opened a world of opportunity.
“It wasn’t easy. I still had to find the money and earn the grades, but your perspective changes when you know someone else believes you can do it.” Kirn said.
Ken worked the graveyard shift at the local pulp mill to pay his tuition and attended class during the day to earn his associate degree. He went on to receive his bachelor’s degree in industrial management from the University of Southern California. After a successful business career working for others, he launched Columbia Cascade Company — a business he built into one of the premier providers of public playground equipment and outdoor furnishings.
As his company prospered, Ken saw an opportunity to help guide the next generation of students. He and his late wife, Dean, set up a scholarship fund at the Community Foundation to support employees and their dependents. In the early years, the Kirns awarded two or three scholarships a year. After seeing the impact the Ken and Dean Kirn Scholarship created, they decided to expand beyond their factory floor and offices.
Ken saw that many young people were writing themselves off much like he had years ago. Some were also facing incredible struggles like addiction, abuse and homelessness. He wanted them to see the same opportunities and encouragement his mentor had shown him. So, Ken decided to open the scholarship to residents of a local youth treatment center.
One of the early applicants was Sally Bovee. She was a sophomore at Clark College who had recently dug her way out of addiction with the help of sponsors and friends. Now, she was working toward her next goal: helping others through a career in social work. She had a job to pay for classes but still fell short of covering her college expenses.
Her determination and achievements were enough to earn the scholarship, but her deep sense of purpose is what caught Ken’s attention. He began rooting for her — hoping and waiting to see if she would reapply. Sally kept coming back, even through a school transfer, the COVID-19 pandemic, a wedding and giving birth to two children.
As she worked to build the life she envisioned, Ken also grew his vision for the Ken and Dean Kirn Scholarship. In 2020, he began to offer scholarships to former Open House Ministries residents and their children. Then, through conversations with our staff, he began accepting southwest Washington students pursuing vocational, technical or career pathways at local community colleges.
Today, the Ken and Dean Kirn Scholarship is opening new opportunities for around 15 local students each year. His investments have provided more than $214,000 in scholarships since opening the fund. Ken hopes the awards spark the same confidence he found as a young man. If Sally is any indicator, it’s working.
This year, she earned her bachelor’s degree in human development with honors from Washington State University Vancouver. She isn’t stopping there though. She’s already eyeing graduate programs so she can become a licensed school-based social worker or therapist. Soon, she’ll be helping youth and families who are facing barriers like the ones she has worked so hard to overcome.
Her desire to pay it forward is a story that resonates deeply with Ken. It reminds him of how his giving will continue to live on in unimaginable ways.
“The real impact is what happens ten or fifteen years from now,” Kirn said. “As these students graduate and apply their skills, they can provide their families with a better life and contribute even more to the community.”