Family and friends have driven Kelly Knudsen’s story from bartending and waitressing in Wisconsin to teaching and now running libraries in Oregon.

Knudsen recently relocated from Portland to the North Coast and took over as director of the Warrenton Community Library from Nettie-Lee Calog, who officially retired last week.

Knudsen, 44, started out life as a young single mother working in the service sector until her mid-20s.

“I had a son when I was really young,” she said. “I was working like bartending jobs and waitressing jobs, and I just wasn’t getting anywhere.”

A friend of Knudsen’s suffered a traumatic brain injury after a car crash and could no longer speak. Knudsen had learned some American Sign Language to communicate with deaf children in church and helped her friend communicate, kindling her pursuit for a new career.

She went to college to be an educational interpreter for deaf children. But during her practicum, Knudsen decided she wanted to teach rather than just interpret for deaf students. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English with teaching credentials and got her first job as an English teacher with her high school alma mater in Stevens Point, Wisconsin.

Knudsen was working as a librarian and English teacher at a youth prison in Wisconsin when the jail received a semi truck trailer of books from two nearby facilities that closed down. A librarian who worked with Knudsen’s mom, a library assistant, came to help organize the collection.

“She said, ‘Really, you’re good at this. Maybe you should think about getting your master’s of library science,’” Knudsen said.

That spurred Knudsen to earn a master’s degree online while working full-time. She left the prison in 2015 after complaining and testifying as part of a John Doe probe into the abuse of students there and took a librarian position with the nearby Wausau School District.

While in Wausau, Knudsen noticed her son, a sophomore in high school, was failing classes and needed a tutor, but she didn’t have much money. Her son is part Potawatomi and Ho-Chunk, two native tribes of Wisconsin, and Knudsen remembered there being free tutoring available for tribal members.

She reached out to a nonprofit incubator, learned to write grants and eventually secured one from the local Potawatomi to help open the American Indian Resource Center in a local church. The center partnered with the school district, hiring tutors, offering feeding programs and helping kids get YMCA memberships.

Knudsen and her husband, Eric, were longtime friends from Wisconsin who married after having kids in separate relationships, her one and him two. After their children left for college, they moved to Portland, and she became a librarian at David Douglas High School.

The couple dreamed of moving to the Oregon Coast — Knudsen has a tattoo sleeve of sea life down one arm — and started looking for local jobs. She was one of nearly 20 candidates for the job at Warrenton’s library, which recently relocated from a dilapidated building near Hammond to the former Serendipity Caffe on Main Avenue.

Knudsen hopes to expand programs at the library for older adults and teens. She wants to bring in people from marginalized populations, such as Native Americans, and promote the area’s history.

But a library is a continually growing organism formed by the community’s needs and wants, she said. “Finding out what the community is interested in and what they want from their library, that’s my biggest thing.”

Edward Stratton is a reporter for The Astorian. Contact him at 971-704-1719 or estratton@dailyastorian.com.

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