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VTSU-Johnson grad Kirsty Greeno helps her college town recover from flood

Written by
VSAC Staff

March 15, 2024


Kirsty Greeno

When Kirsty Greeno was growing up, she moved around a lot, mostly through Vermont and a bit of Maine. Before completing high school, Kirsty, her sister and their single father relocated multiple times, moving from Rutland to Salisbury, then to Middlebury, followed by Whiting, and finally settling in Cuttingsville.“It was lonely. You’d meet people and make friends, but you’d also know you were going to move eventually.”

With all her moves it wasn’t a given that Kirsty would be able to graduate from high school on time. “One of my early high school counselors said I wasn’t worth their time because I wouldn’t make it to college,” she says. Those words hurt so much, that Kirsty didn’t put much time into preparing for college. Fortunately, during her junior year at Otter Valley Union High School in Brandon, Kirsty met VSAC outreach counselor Monda Kelley.

“When I got to Otter Valley, I remember Monda saying to me, ‘What do you mean you haven’t started preparing for college?’

At the time, I was still hearing the words of that other counselor in my head, that I wouldn’t make it. But Monda helped me improve my resume and apply for scholarships. And I took a full course load my senior year to make up my lost credits.

Monda recalls Kirsty’s determination and dedication. “She had a real interest in learning, and she was driven to make sure she got everything she needed in order to attend college.”

Finding community in college

Kirsty graduated from Otter Valley in the spring of 2013. From there she attended Johnson State College (now Vermont State University-Johnson). “Getting that acceptance letter from Johnson gave me the most freeing feeling I’ve ever felt. It told me and the world, I’m going to do more with my life,” says Kirsty.

Kirsty Greeno Spotlight - VTD - 2.jpg

At Johnson, she majored in psychology, minored in sociology and anthropology, and earned a certificate in nonprofit business management. Now, seven years out of school, Kirsty looks back at her time there as a life-changing experience.

“College really turned my life around. Growing up and moving around, I didn’t have a good sense of community or home. When I went to Johnson for college, that community completely welcomed and accepted me,” she says. Even with classes, Kirsty was able to get her first job. She also worked with the Dream Program as a mentor to second to ninth graders. “It was empowering to know I could hopefully make a difference for these kids. I really wished I’d had someone believe in me when I was that age.”

Building community through service

Kirsty also participated in eight service trips, which introduced her to community service work. After college, she served with AmeriCorps for four years. Her work included:

  • helping communities across the country: recover from wildfires, tornadoes, and hurricanes
  • building homes in Montana with Habitat for Humanity, and
  • supporting underserved youth in several communities in California.
Kirsty Greeno cutting tree

In 2021, Kirsty started learning the demolition trade, so she could be more hands-on in disaster zones. She signed on with the relief group All Hands and Hearts, first as a volunteer, and eventually became a full-time staff member (She's now a Site Supervisor.) Her relief work has taken her to Louisiana after Hurricane Ida; Paradise and Berry Creek, California, to support restoration and rebuilding after several wildfires; Amory, Mississippi, after a tornado; and Fort Myers, Florida, for ongoing response to Hurricane Ian.

And, after Vermont's 2023 river flooding last summer, she came home to Johnson, Vermont.

While she says it felt really hard to see her beloved college town in such a bad state, “It was nice to be able to give back to a community that had given so much to me.”

Kirsty also says her familiarity with the area helped direct All Hands and Hearts to Johnson, as well as to nearby Cabot and Marshfield, when the group was initially drawn to the higher-profile capital region. “But I said, ‘guys, there’s all these other communities that were also hit hard ... We need to help these small towns that are getting overlooked.’”

Continuing to give back

Kirsty Greeno working under home

After Vermont's 2023 flood, recovery teams like Kirsty’s are mostly focused on “mucking guts,” or removal of damaged household materials and items. Kirsty has crawled underneath mobile homes to remove wet insulation, and operated chainsaws to remove downed trees from homes and yards. “When we first respond, we’re working six days a week, 10- to 12-hour days, helping people get their homes opened up so they can start drying out.”

Kirsty recalls working with one family of grandparents who were staying with their grandson while his father was away on military service. They had to be rescued at 2 AM when flood waters surged through their house and rose up to their chests. “And afterward, they had nowhere to go,” Kirsty recalls. “I held them in my arms while they just cried.”

“I wish people knew how long it takes for families and communities to recover from something like that,” Kirsty says. “It can take years, even decades. The disaster lasts a lot longer than the news cycle, and people need our help for a lot longer than most of us realize.”  

Monda Kelley has followed Kirsty’s work on social media over the years. "She is a young person who has taken her education to the next level in her volunteerism. I’m astounded at the amount of work she does to help out others. And all of that started when she was in college," Kelley notes.

Kirsty, who is a first-generation college graduate, agrees that college changed her life. “But it wasn’t my psychology degree that was my biggest takeaway,” she says. “It was finding my passion for community and for helping others.”

When asked about her long-term goals, Kirsty hopes to continue giving back.

For now, I’m really content and fulfilled doing disaster relief, so that’s my plan for now. In the future, I’d like to get back into construction, and I’d like to give that knowledge and opportunity to kids and young people, to help them get into the trades. As long as I’m empowering and helping, that’s what I want to do with my life.