Manhattan woman rebuilds organization that built her life

George Walker | The Collegian Lt. Kirsten Aho, Corps Officer at the Manhattan Salvation Army, stands outside the Salvation Army thrift store.

Women Empowered: This is part two of an ongoing series profiling strong, inspiring women in the K-State and Manhattan community.

Many people view a job purely as a means to an end. There are a few, however, for whom their job is an extension of who they are and what they believe in.

Lieutenant Kirsten Aho of the Manhattan chapter of the Salvation Army is one such person. Aho was tasked with rebuilding the Salvation Army facility after an arson-related fire damaged the store in 2012.

“Everything has been defined by the fire for me,” Aho said. “It’s been working to rebuild the building and finding out what our goal and mission is here.”

She runs the Salvation Army chapter in Manhattan out of a tiny office adjacent to the Salvation Army thrift store on 310 Poyntz Ave. Her office space is a set of four cubicles that she shares with the other employees. A prominent part of the wall is devoted to pictures of her family. There are also pictures and crafts from her work as a youth minister in Chicago.

Aho moved to Manhattan from Chicago in 2012. She said she’s still adjusting to life in a small town in the Midwest. Some changes have been small, such as the increase in the number of Christian stations on the radio; others have been larger.

“I’m a woman who is a pastor, and this is groundbreaking for a lot of Christians,” Aho said. “It makes some people uncomfortable, which is something I had never experienced before moving to Manhattan. It’s never anything personal, but I don’t think they would come to my church.”

Aho was born into the Salvation Army; her childhood was spent moving around the U.S. with her parents, both of whom were officers with the Salvation Army. As a result, Aho formed a close bond with the organization as a child. She said she remembers going to work with her parents and seeing the difference the organization made in the lives of the people. It is something that stuck with her throughout her life.

“For me, it’s always been like my church,” Aho said. “This is where I feel God is at work in the world and where I’ll meet God.”

Aho majored in art at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa. That was the longest she spent away from the Salvation Army. Nonetheless, she joined the organization over the summer on mission trips around and outside the U.S.

“To me, they were very educational,” Aho said. “The mission trips helped me see how life was like in other countries and understand even really basic differences.”

Her experiences with her parents and the mission trips she took with the Salvation Army gave her a perspective on life and instilled the idea of social justice which drew her to be more involved with social work.

“To me, the Salvation Army was the source of that social justice,” Aho said. “From a young age, I was able to see the differences between how different people live within the U.S. where some people are much wealthier than others and have much lower expectations for their own life. I thought that was really interesting and it kept drawing me back to the Salvation Army.”

It was before one of the mission trips trip that she said she realized she wanted to be involved with the Salvation Army on a deeper level. Before her mission trip to Ukraine in 2005, she attended an ordination and commissioning ceremony for new officers, something she would go through herself in 2011.

“I was all by myself, just sitting there and observing what was going on,” Aho said. “I felt like I really belonged with the people who were being commissioned and that drove some of my internal reflective period throughout college.”

For the last two years, Aho has devoted her time to rebuilding the thrift store in Manhattan. Now that the process is nearly complete, her task is to look toward the road ahead. The rebuilding phase has been difficult, but Aho said she believes that with the support of her staff, the Salvation Army has a bright future ahead.

“The only way to accomplish a vision is to get other people ready to work towards it as well,” Aho said. “Ideally, I would like for everyone to see the vision with me and to be able to know ‘this is how I fit in’ and work towards it together.”

Liz Jackson, a clerk at the Salvation Army, said Aho was a great person to work for, and that she is very collaborative in her approach.

“I can remember specifically the other day she came in and said, ‘Hey! What sign do you want in the front of the store?’” Jackson said. “I do value that about her that we feel valued as employees.”

Jackson said that while Aho prefers to delegate, there have been times when she has taken charge while still making the employees feel important.

“She’s very hands-on, and she likes to have a plan as well,” said Eric Martin, case manager for the Salvation Army in Manhattan. “If you approach her with a situation, she likes to sit down and map out how to get from point A to point B.”

Above her desk on the wall between photos of her nephews and other artwork is a quote that reads, “Though on the outside it looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, God is making new life.” It is a quote that she said she believes in and tries to live by.

“Things aren’t going maybe how we thought they were supposed to go,” Aho said. “But if God is at work, which I believe He is, then things are going to turn out okay, even if it’s not my vision.”