Downtime with Shannon Vilhauer, executive director, Habitat for Humanity of Oregon

Jason E. Kaplan

Vilhauer talks about her hopes for Oregon’s future — and what she does to unwind 

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What are you reading?

I recently read the Amelia Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters, which are set primarily in Egypt starting at the turn of the century. I am also a lifelong lover of poetry. My staff team gifted me with Amanda Gorman’s The Hill We Climb for my birthday last year.

What are you watching?

During the pandemic, I frequently turn to “The Great British Baking Show” for comfort. Usually, I try to eat a snack first. I love watching British people compete for things. They do it so politely. Plus, what they bake is amazing!

What are you listening to?

Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” is at the top of my playlist, joined by David Bowie’s “Changes” and Florence and the Machine’s “Ship to Wreck.” Other playlist all-stars include Cyndi Lauper, Madeleine Peyroux, Lyle Lovett, Bonnie Raitt, Keb’ Mo’, Aretha Franklin and Brandi Carlile—with Van Morrison songs sprinkled in for good measure.

What is your must-have gadget?

My Kindle Paperwhite. Having a nearly endless supply of books available from the comfort of my home has been a godsend during the pandemic.

What are your hobbies and interests?

I relish spending time outdoors with family and friends. My 7-year-old son has become a solid hiker. Our favorite destination is Silver Creek Falls. Even though my home is in Salem, I meet up with Portland-based friends for hikes in Forest Park at least twice a month.

What was your childhood or earliest ambition?

I went to college fully expecting to become a pastor. In the spirit of preparing myself for tough questions, I took philosophy classes and fell in love with the subject matter. By my second year of graduate school, I was less smitten with other people’s thoughts and craved action. Instead of theorizing about making the world a better place, I wanted to get out there and do it. That urge led me to serve as a VISTA Volunteer with Habitat for Humanity in Salem.

What is your favorite place to vacation?

I love traveling anywhere by ferry and am completely enamored with the San Juan Islands. I have stumbled into magical happenings there, like going on a whim to see Shakespeare’s The Tempest on a stage built in the middle of a lavender field on a summer evening. Despite having tried numerous times, I’ve yet to see orcas from San Juan Island. They always elude me.

What is your biggest extravagance?

This year, my 7-year-old and I have taken a couple of spontaneous trips to the Oregon Coast. If we leave straight from his school on Friday afternoon, we can make it to Lincoln City for an hour on the beach before sunset.

What motivates you to come to work?

People. The staff team at Habitat for Humanity of Oregon is extremely capable, committed and caring. I honestly believe that we have the best Board of Directors in the universe. This group of leaders includes both local Habitat executive directors and regional and statewide leaders who bring amazing skills, perspectives and connections to our shared work. While the homes we build may look like the finished product, for the families we serve, they are just the beginning of a day-to-day life filled with stability and opportunity. This is joyful work.

Who is your professional role model?

When first hired to serve as the executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Oregon, I asked a trusted advisor and friend how to get started in state advocacy. Without hesitating, he directed me to Janet Byrd, who was then the executive director of Neighborhood Partnerships. Janet inspired me to take the business of mentoring seriously—along with creating a more inclusive nonprofit workforce.

What ambitions do you still have?

My ambition is that, by the time my son is an adult, housing choices in Oregon will be as abundant as craft beers and delicious berries. I envision an Oregon where we are all proud of the stable, flourishing communities we’ve built together — that include homes of varying sizes, configurations and costs.