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Abbe Hensley has been a positive and impactful force for improving children’s early literacy and learning in Alaska and nationally. Hensley was born in Anchorage in 1945. Her mother, Gayle Strutz, was a second generation Alaskan – born here after her parents arrived in Alaska in the early 1900’s. Hensley’s father, James Ryan, was a Californian and Hensley would grow up moving frequently between the two states. She made her first trip down the Alcan at the age of 1 1/2 and was told that their car was one of the first private vehicles to travel over the Alcan! Hensley’s father was from a large Connecticut family that had settled in Oroville, California in the late 30’s and when Hensley and her parents traveled down the Alcan they headed for Oroville. Her father would then travel back and forth between California and Alaska to work construction and in canneries for a number of years. Her Anchorage schooling included stints at Chugach, North Star and Denali. High School years were spent in Oroville and Sacramento. With a significant amount of moving around during her school years, friends were difficult to make. Hensley’s younger sister and her cousins in Alaska and California were important connections.
Hensley was scholarly and diligent in school and was named a semi-finalist in the Merit Scholarship Program. She enrolled in Mills College as a History Major. After graduation she returned to Alaska and felt like she had truly “Come Home!”. Her lifelong passion for advocating for children and families was about to begin.
From 1972 to 1974 Hensley worked for the Tanana Chiefs Conference and developed and implemented a needs assessment project for early childhood programs in interior Alaska. As the coordinator of the Early Childhood Project Hensley developed skills that would serve her for many years and create a career that spanned 50 years of both community and work related service to young children and families.
Hensley married and moved to Anchorage in the mid-70’s, started her family and immersed herself in childbirth education. She regularly taught childbirth education classes in Anchorage between 1976 and 1986 and also in Kotzebue from 1986 to 1989. She designed and implemented the first program for pregnant teenagers in Kotzebue and was a trainer for childbirth educators statewide …. designing, presenting and implementing workshops and continually upgrading the program which was eventually offered for credit through the University of Alaska. She also served on the Alaska State Medical Board during this time.
Hensley was an early leader in the Alaska PTA. She served as the elected President from 1989 to 1993. As PTA President she designed, implemented and evaluated an innovative model for two statewide parent involvement conferences which were supported by the Governor’s Office. She organized an Alaskan summit on parent involvement in children’s education that brought together leaders from statewide groups and organizations. Hensley also served as National PTA Vice President for Leadership and felt that PTA needed to make changes in order to attract parents working outside the home to serve in leadership positions. She led strategic efforts to promote more professional training, adopting leadership materials designed for businesses and re-working them for PTA training curricula. The goal was to provide PTA leaders (mostly women) with training and education that they could use both in their PTA work and on the job. Her expertise in and leadership of PTA’s in Alaska and nationally was recognized and she served on the Alaska State Board of Education and also served as the Board Chair.
Hensley’s work as Director of Education and Outreach with public station KAKM in the 1990’s created an unprecedented collaboration among the four Alaskan public television stations. In 1995, KAKM became one of the first Ready To Learn stations nationally and Hensley implemented the project in Anchorage, Mat-Su and on the Kenai Peninsula. In 2001 she moved into the national position of Director of Outreach Services/Ready To Learn for Public Broadcasting. In this national PBS position she administered the outreach component of a five year, $100 million US Department of Education funded project that worked towards improving the early literacy and school readiness of young children.
Hensley’s family had grown to 4 children over the years and she and her husband, Willie Hensley, returned to Alaska in 2006. Abbe as the founding Executive Director of Best Beginnings, a statewide nonprofit that mobilizes people and resources to ensure all Alaskan children begin school ready to succeed. In 2018, an amazing 112 Alaska communities – more than 18,000 children – participated in the Imagination Library (Dolly Parton’s monthly free book program for children age birth to 5 years of age) under the Best Beginnings umbrella. Nationally, the Alaska program is seen as a model for the Dollywood Foundation. The 2 millionth book was placed in a child’s hand in Alaska in 2018. As state support dropped off for the program, Hensley marshaled impressive private support and retooled the entire nonprofit so that they could continue to provide books to young Alaskans. She created an impressive yearly fundraiser, The First Ladie’s Tea for Best Beginnings. This Sunday afternoon event raises between $30,000 and $40,000 yearly and has motivated current and former Alaskan first ladies to support and promote early childhood education and reading opportunities.
The creation, growing and maintaining of Best Beginnings can be seen as Hensley’s crowning achievement in a professional life devoted to the education and support of young children and their families. Her life’s work has been as an advocate for those who could not advocate for themselves – the youngest among us. She has sought to empower parents and children alike throughout her long career and has been an exemplary role model as a wife, mother, grandmother, civic leader and executive. She and her husband Willie and their 5 children have benefited from her commitment – as has the rest of our population. She has been absolutely committed to growing the next generation of leaders, both nationally and in Alaska.
Among the many honors and awards that Hensley has received are:
The Shining Lights Award (with Willie Hensley) from Congregation Beth Shalom, 2016
Anchorage ATHENA Society inductee, 2014
Little Red Wagon Advocacy Award, Alaska Association for the Education of Young Children, 2012
Service Award, Arlington Community Action Program (Virginia), 2000
Honorary Life Member of the National PTA and 17 state PTA’s
Legislative Citation, Alaska State Legislature, 1993
Women of Achievement, Anchorage YWCA, 1990
Friend of Education, Northwest Arctic Education Association, 1987
Hensley has chosen to concentrate her life’s work in an area that completely alters people’s lives – improving the early years of our youngest citizens. Her work and her volunteer activities have all endeavored to increase learning, safety and resources for those who can’t take care of themselves and who need advocates the most. In doing so she has lifted up and made visible these concerns to all men and women of our state and has served as a role model for all of us to learn from!
Resume of Abigale (Ryan) Hensley
Interview with Abigale (Ryan) Hensley
Best Beginnings website bestbeginningsalaska.org
Nomination submitted by Jo Michalski
Nomination submitted by Barbara Brown
Induction ceremony acceptance speech https://youtu.be/91E3oc2AGx0