Karen Hensley. photo by SEEMA HAMID-AMICO
Karen Hensley. photo by SEEMA HAMID-AMICO
For Karen Hensley, co-founder of Sisters Graduate Resource Organization (GRO), the desire to create opportunities for others had its roots in being part of a big family growing up in a small town in the Willamette Valley.

“When you are one of 10 kids, you learn about giving and receiving and the need to be unselfish, so I have always had a heart to help others,” she said.

Her motivation to build up a scholarship program for students in Sisters also stems from understanding, from personal experience, the challenges of affording higher education.

When she graduated from high school Hensley did not have the sort of financial support to make further education affordable. A strong work ethic, along with a high school intern program, helped her on her earliest career path, as she earned certification as a dental assistant before she was 19. Later in her life she managed a dental office and became active in commercial real estate.

“I want kids to feel supported in their dreams, especially with the cost of post-high school education being so high now,” she said.

By all measures, her wishes are coming true.

The work that Hensley has poured into establishing, maintaining, and expanding GRO since 2006 has benefited hundreds of Sisters High School graduates to achieve their post-high school dreams.

The class of 2020 will receive $212,000 dispersed among 57 different graduates. That total is about six times the amount available than when Hensley arrived on the scene.

Hensley’s path to making GRO happen began when she moved to Sisters from Salem with her husband, Tim, in 2005, which was in the middle of a population boom in the school district. Her son, Steven, a junior at the time, enrolled at Sisters High School, and Hensley wanted to find a way to be involved, so she signed on with the ASPIRE mentorship program as it was just getting underway. One thing led to another, and she began to help another parent volunteer, Laurie Adams, work on the local scholarships already being offered in Sisters. At that time, there was no organizing body.

“Within a short time of arriving in Sisters I recognized the community’s uniqueness in how it supported the schools and thought a more robust scholarship program was totally attainable,” Hensley said. “With the growth in population I realized we needed to beef things up.”

Hensley, Adams and school leaders approached the Sisters Schools Foundation to find out whether a scholarship program could become a part of the SSF non-profit, but that idea could not be worked out, so the group decided to create GRO, which formally came into existence as a non-profit on November 10, 2008.

Hensley became president, Adams vice-president, and Karen Lord treasurer in the fledgling organization. Shortly after, the group changed the lead title to chairperson, rather than president, according to Hensley.

“The title ‘president’ just didn’t’ seem to fit,” she said.

Hensley stepped down as chair in November 2019, but remains on the board in emeritus status and continues to contribute in many practical ways.

A number of current board members have been part of GRO for many years and credit Hensley with leading the organization to where it is today.

Karen Lord, who knew Hensley from when both women lived in Salem, recalled having lunch with Hensley after both had moved to Sisters.

“Karen (Hensley) knew my background as a CPA and asked if I was interested in helping form a non-profit,” she said. “One thing about her is that it is very difficult to say ‘no’ to her. Karen Hensley is generous, reliable, gracious and fiercely determined to make a difference in the future for Sisters students. She is forever modest about her own contributions while making others feel valued and recognized.”

Another long-time board member, Ann Thompson, said, “My recollection is of the hours and hours – actually days — we put in, in the early years, judging scholarships, using all kinds of rubrics to make selections.

“We did nearly everything, down to cutting out and pasting some of the felt college banners to decorate the Commons for the Senior Celebration. Karen always had a smile and a good word, even under some of those dire conditions,” she said.

Lori Larson, another board member said, “Karen is the unsung hero with a heart of gold, instrumental in providing Sisters High School seniors with scholarship dollars for higher education. Parents in our community should count their blessings for Karen’s passion and vision in support of Sisters kids!”

The GRO board voted earlier this year to rename a scholarship offered by the organization the “Karen Hensley Service Scholarship,” according to current board chair Tim Ross. “She certainly deserves to be honored,” he said.

As to the future of GRO, Hensley continues to be amazed at the generosity and support the community shows to Sisters’ youth. She visualizes a time when more and more graduates come back and want to contribute to the next generation, and also that families will form trusts which will allow GRO to develop an endowment fund.

“Also, considering we are called the Graduate Resource Organization, maybe someday we will have funds to help adults seeking higher degrees, well after they graduated from high school,” she said.

Hensley is grateful for all the relationships she has formed over the years with students, school personnel, donors, and her fellow board members.

“The board is so talented and dedicated,” she said. “I can’t say enough about them.”

Looking back, Hensley has only appreciation for what she has gotten from her investment into the Sisters community.

“My philosophy is ‘when you give, you receive’, and I have received a lot,” she said.