By Barrett Baker
Growing up in the mountains of Pennsylvania, Rebecca Kleinhample wasn’t afraid to get a little dirt under her nails. In fact, she was more apt to romp in the woods with her brother than to play dolls with her sisters. This is part of what makes her the perfect person to lead the Virginia Living Museum forward as their executive director.
Starting off as a part-time volunteer and becoming a full-time employee as the membership manager in 2004, Kleinhample worked her way up through various jobs with the Virginia Living Museum before being appointed as executive director in December of 2016. A military spouse, she logged a dozen or so moves during the 20 years her husband was on active duty before retiring here. Moving every two to three years made it difficult to cobble together a career, but the various experiences serve her well in her current position.
CoVa BIZ: Tell us about the Virginia Living Museum and your role as executive director.
Rebecca Kleinhample: Our mission, which is out there pretty prominently, is to connect people with nature through educational experiences that promote conservation. That is what I am about. I graduated with a science degree from Penn State, and this is the closest I’ve been to that degree. But I grew up outside with my brother, in the streams and creeks of Pennsylvania, catching crayfish, fishing in the Susquehanna River with my grandfather and digging in the garden with my dad. That’s just me. I connected with the outdoors. It truly is what is most valuable to me. Most of my happiest moments are outside with family. So that’s why I connect here, and that’s why it’s so important to me. And then to be able to share that with our visitors. The other most important thing was education. I get to see my youth literally repeated here every day, as families are here digging in that touch tank, running down the boardwalk trail, enjoying the woods and just enjoying the gardens we have. It’s really fulfilling.
CoVa BIZ: What do you think has been the secret to your success?
RK: I’d say that my passion for the mission and understanding the families who truly built this organization. Many of those people are still involved 50 years later. It’s pretty incredible. I connect with those people and what they wanted in their community for their families and their kids. They wanted hands-on nature and science. Plus, we’ve always been mindful of the state’s standard of learning, and everything we do is grade-level correlated for the school groups that come here.
CoVa BIZ: What makes the Virginia Living Museum so unique?
RK: We’ve gotten such good support locally and from the press that sees the content and how the people associate with us. And that really is what has buoyed us as a grassroots organization for so many years. We’re active all the time. I think maybe one of the misnomers that’s out there is the word “museum” sometimes tends to imply that you’re a static room with things in it, and it’s so not the case here. You can see the activity and hear the noise level when you come in and just the energy and the fact that when people leave, they’re smiling. For many people, this is a really good day with their family. That’s unique.
CoVa BIZ: What do you love the most about being here?
RK: The geography of the state. Because you can be on the beach, you can be in the mountains. There’s just a huge variety here in Virginia. I like the weather. My daughter went to Virginia Tech, so every time we got to drive out there it’s just reminiscent of those Pennsylvania mountains. I just feel all the stress leave my body as I’m driving out there. The kids learned to ski at Wintergreen, which it two hours away, and we’ve got the beaches and the history of Williamsburg and Fort Monroe right in our backyard. There’s just so much here. Plus the opportunity to truly enjoy nature—going to Grand View, kayaking and hiking. It’s just what we’ve always done while our kids were growing up and what I did as a kid. It all works.