A longtime leader, advocate and crusader for underserved populations, Diana Avalos-Leos was named this year’s Clark County First Citizen. The First Citizen Award is given annually to a Clark County resident who models exemplary citizenship.
To Avalos-Leos, that means holding space for community residents and providing the next generation with pathways for meaningful engagement.
“I realize I hold an incredible space in this community. … I can help projects, initiatives, people move forward,” she said in an interview with The Columbian, which is a sponsor of the award.
According to the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington, Avalos-Leos is the first award recipient to identify as a woman of color. First Citizen, which started in 1939, tends to go to older, white retirees who are invested in the community. Award winners are chosen by a committee of community leaders and past award recipients. At 52, Avalos-Leos is the youngest award winner since restaurateur Mark Matthias, who won it in 2008 when he was 52.
On top of working full time at the Healthy Living Collaborative, Avalos-Leos keeps herself busy. She founded the Clark County Latino Youth Conference, serves as vice president of youth at Southwest Washington League of United Latin American Citizens, and trains people in the community about rights and protections for immigrant families. Avalos-Leos recently took part in The Columbian’s Bridging the Border: A Community Forum with Attorney General Bob Ferguson and was appointed to the Washington Exchange Board by Gov. Jay Inslee. Her work focuses on bringing people together.
Avalos-Leos said she’s typically awake by 5 a.m. and home after 6 or 7 p.m. due to her commitments. But she’s found that connecting with people often happens when she finds a few minutes or a half-hour during her day. She also credits her supportive spouse for her success.
“He knows I’m involved in a lot of things. He’s incredibly patient,” Avalos-Leos said.
The award came as a huge surprise to Avalos-Leos, she said. She moved to Clark County in 1999 for a job opportunity, and her kids graduated from Battle Ground High School.
“This is a place where people actually care and are kind,” she said, adding that people aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and work.
She considers it her civic and personal duty to make the community better.
“I don’t question why me,” she said of that sense of duty. “It’s more why not me?”
Tamara Shoup, executive director of school support for Vancouver Public Schools, nominated Avalos-Leos, who used to work at the school district. Avalos-Leos supported schools that had a large number of Spanish-speaking families and continues to work with the district through the Healthy Living Collaborative.
“I’ve also just been amazed by her ability to identify young leaders” and help them rise to the top, Shoup said. “Some people can give their resources in dollars. What Diana has shown us is you can give your resources in service and have an incredible impact, too.”
In her nominee summary, Shoup wrote: “Diana’s passion and steadfast resolve to cultivate inclusive engagement practices goes far beyond her role as a professional. She lives her mission: taking action every single day, giving others the confidence to do hard things and creating opportunity for others to join her.”
Shoup has seen Avalos-Leos help families and serve as a resource “day or night.” When immigration laws began changing in 2016 and the implication on Vancouver Public Schools families was unclear, Avalos-Leos rallied professional experts to explain to parents what their rights were and how school employees could help.
“She’s just an amazing human being,” Shoup said.
The 2020 First Citizen celebration takes place April 23 at WareHouse ’23 on the Vancouver waterfront.