Life Lessons from a Leader Who Died Too Young

November 5, 1972-May 20, 1998

The Following is a reflection I  wrote this summer for my 20-year Mead High School Reunion in Spokane, Washington. My closest childhood friend, Krista Hunt Ausland, was our 1990-1991 Student Body President.

Thirteen years after her death by bus accident in the mountains of Bolivia, I still spend a lot of time imagining my childhood friend and fellow 1991 Mead High School graduate Krista Hunt Ausland as she might be today in the company of friends and family. It’s actually not that difficult to conjure up those images, for Krista seemed to transcend a myriad of worlds with a well-balanced mix of attributes that included humor, faith, grace, compassion, curiosity, joy, and a sense of justice.

In fact, all of those attributes made Krista a shoe-in for the Mead High School Student Body President during our senior year in 1990-1991. As the president, an honors student, and a member of the debate team, she was equally capable of fighting to save the environment and the rights of indigenous peoples as she was for making sure a formal school dance had all the right music and decorations. You might even say she was prestigious without being pretentious.

Fellow honors student and ’91 graduate Lisa Sommers remembers that Krista used to call the Talented and Gifted Program (TAG) Tweaty and Geeky.

“I love that she knew how to laugh at herself – and me,” recalled Lisa.

But neither the podium nor the school desk were Krista’s only places to be. No, throughout high school, Krista could found just about anywhere among the masses: on the field of a powder-puff football game or shouting on the sidelines with the cheerleaders; rallying students around a city-wide activism program we co-founded with Lisa called Youth for World Awareness or taking time to hear the frustrations of students in the smoking section. Krista didn’t care whether you wore combat boots and dark clothing or Mead-colored letterman jackets and sneakers, Krista could always find good reason to get to know you and your concerns.

“It didn’t matter how long it had been since we hung out or what we were doing, she was more present in the moment and there with you as a friend and confident than anyone else I have ever known,” said Lisa.

She was, as ’91 alumnus Brenda Busch summed up in a recent e-mail, a person you could trust amid the tumultuous teens.

That kind of Krista continued into her young adult years. During spring semester of her sophomore year of college, she took a brief hiatus from her studies at University of Puget Sound in Tacoma to travel with her father Jim on the Whitworth University Central America Travel and Study Tour. Thanks to Krista’s passionate account of her previous trip to Guatemala as a high school exchange student, I was inspired to join her on the study tour. It can be a trying and humbling experience to travel through developing nations with less than adequate language skills. But as with high school, Krista made this strange, unpredictable journey a wonderful learning experience for all of us. Her cheerful disposition helped to open the doors of communication with the locals in every country, and her good humor helped us to laugh away our weaknesses with strange foods and, in turn, the sickness they sometimes gave us.

Krista married her college sweetheart Aaron Ausland upon graduating from UPS. Aaron is himself a charismatic character with many of the same well-balanced tendencies. After a year of working as a high-school teacher in inner city Tacoma, Krista grabbed her backpack, and with Aaron at her side, she ran off to serve the most remote of Andean communities in Bolivia with an international development organization known as the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).

Their life in the village of Bañado de la Cruz was simple but gratifying. Krista helped develop a women’s cooperative focused on health, literacy, and social outreach in and around the community. She also supported Aaron as he worked to create a sustainable agriculture program. Krista and Aaron made their humble adobe home an inviting place for daily visits from villagers, and Krista often shared in gossip and advice while washing clothes with women at the river. There too, she was quick to include anyone standing on the sidelines. In another account told to her loved ones, fellow MCC volunteer Jeremy Funk said Krista led him to the dance floor to learn salsa, building his confidence in the steps, which were especially challenging because of his battle with cerebral palsy.

Krista was just six months into her three-year commitment to MCC when the bus she and Aaron were traveling on took a mountain curve too quickly and plunged into a ravine. To this day, memories of the news of her death still send chills up my spine and bring tears to my eyes. It’s hard to imagine that someone so full of joy and life, such an asset to so many corners of this world could leave it so quickly.

I don’t claim to know the ways of God, but I can tell you that Krista left an incredible legacy and one that can be appreciated on both public and personal levels. Her commitment to teaching and empowerment inspired Krista’s parents and Bolivians in a community near Bañado de la Cruz to build a library in her name. That project serves as a foundation for inspiring literacy in a place where few people have the opportunity to learn to read and thus develop the tools to take control of their destinies. A few years after Krista’s passing, Aaron helped Krista’s parents to establish the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship, which provides international and domestic service volunteers with skills-development scholarships and mentoring that will help them make service leadership not a just a short-term project but a way of life. The faith-based project has given added support to dozens of young adults from the Northwest serving in areas that were dear to Krista’s heart including developing nations, U.S. inner cities, and the environment. You can learn more about Krista’s legacy at the foundation’s website

That Krista had a global impact makes me proud and excited. That Krista died in love and doing what she loved, brings me peace. For my part, I have tried to incorporate her adventurous, service-minded global spirit and great humor into my career in international reporting. But all these years later, I am reminded that Krista had an impact before ever leaving Spokane. No matter where you live or what you do for a living, I think we can all find inspiration from implementing some of Krista’s incredible balance – of acknowledging and bringing joy to those around you, while listening to their concerns to understand why those issues are important to their particular circumstances.

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