Our Board of Directors
Finance Committee & Policy Work Group Member
Sam Bennett is an urban pioneer who has lived in midtown Kansas City since 1981. He earned a bachelors degree in History and English from Simpson College in Iowa, and went on to add a masters degrees in Library Science and Public Administration from the University of Missouri. A career in public libraries was followed by a second career as a program officer for local charitable foundations.
Sam's environmental work has included planting redwood trees in northern California, organizing for the Black Hills Alliance and Mobilization for Survival, and volunteer work with Bridging the Gap.
Olusola Olugbenga Festus, or Sola as people call him, is a doctoral candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant at the University of Missouri- Kansas City, majoring in Geosciences and minoring in social sciences. He teaches and manages laboratory activities for Geographic Information System (GIS) and Remote Sensing (RS), and his research areas are in wetland landscape dynamics. Sola has a flair for Health Geography and has had his work published and presented at conferences.
Sola has a lot of experience in spatial epidemiology and currently volunteers as a member of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) COVID-19 Rapid Response team. Sola is working on research geared towards wetland landscape dynamics and its socio-ecological implications in Kansas City. He is open and eager to learn new things so we can make the world a better place.
Kyle is a Nebraska native, transplanting to Kansas City, Missouri, from the Omaha area in 2019 with his two children. He has a degree in horticulture and over two decades of diverse experience in the landscape and horticulture industry, specializing in areas such as arboriculture, stormwater management, urban habitat, organic lawn care and property management, and hardscape design and construction.
He is passionate about utilizing straight-species, native plants to mimic nature, to create sustainable, low-maintenance "plant communities," departing from typical mulch-based landscapes that have become the standard in the US. He firmly believes that the green industry needs a major paradigm shift, moving away from high-maintenance, high-input, over-irrigated, and over-engineered lawns and landscapes, and toward creating and maintaining urban greenspaces that are functional, sustainable, environmentally-beneficial, and beautiful.
Kyle loves sharing his passion with others through teaching, speaking, and being involved in his local community.
Bill Blessing is the retired Senior Vice President of Corporate Strategy and Development of Sprint and Embarq, where he developed and implemented multibillion dollar network investments, new businesses and products, and corporate acquisitions and alliances. Since then he has served on corporate and nonprofit boards including The Nature Conservancy in Kansas, and qualified as a Leadership Fellow of the National Association of Corporate Directors.
Bill is an active traveler. He has hiked in 57 of our national parks, and visited 63 countries.
Partnership & Policy Work Group Member
After graduating from Washburn University in 2016 with a degree in biology, Kristen focused her career and advocacy on ecology and botany. While at Washburn she researched the species of plants that colonized the under story of invasive bush Honeysuckle. She also spent time in the forests of Costa Rica studying biodiversity of Arthropods.
Kristen supported the Heartland Conservation Alliance 2016 National Fish and Wildlife “A Monarch’s View of the City” project. She also worked as a Maintenance Manager and Landscape Ecologist for a local native plant landscaping company, Down to Earth Services.
Kristen volunteers for many organizations, including Heartland Conservation Alliance’s Policy Work Group and Partnership Work Group. Kristen has assisted in teaching the Green Guard Stewards program for the past four years. She is passionate about conservation for both environmental preservation and protecting the communities around Kansas City that she loves. While not listing off the correct scientific names of plants to anyone who will listen, Kristen enjoys reading books with her two cats Grub and Dwight.
Finance Committee Member
Matthew Hart is a Kansas City import from Idaho via Colorado, living in Waldo since 2002. An outdoor enthusiast his entire life, he discovered the Blue River via his mountain biking hobby in 2009 and has spent hundreds of hours biking, hiking, and exploring ever since. He has helped build and maintain single track trail through the KC Urban Core since 2012.
Matt is currently the Chief Information Officer for Arise Virtual Solutions. Prior to Arise, he worked at Avaya Communications and Oracle Corporation. He received his BA in History from The Colorado College. Matt is the author of six technology books and two works of fiction, and the co-author of two children.
Sarah grew up on the family farm an hour west of Kansas City and has lived in the metro since 2009. After stints in the historic Westside neighborhood downtown and Brookside, she settled with her partner in a small community along Blue River Road in South KC. An avid mountain biker, Sarah spends thousands of hours (and miles) each year exploring the dirt trails along the Blue River corridor and beyond. She volunteers with Urban Trail Co to build and maintain trails as well as with various HCA partners to remove invasive honeysuckle and clean up trash. She's passionate about conservation, outdoor recreation, access to public wild lands, and community cooperation and engagement.
Chandler Little Eagle
Partnership Work Group Member
Chandler Little Eagle was born and raised in the northland of Kansas City, Missouri. In May 2018 she earned her Bachelor's in Environmental Studies with additional minors in sustainability, History and Geography.
Chandler's passion for the outdoors stays beyond extracurricular activities as she participated in environmental activism to protect tribal land belonging to her enrolled tribe, the Standing Rock Sioux, opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline in September of 2016. She served one year of federal volunteer service through AmeriCorps as a VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America.)
Moving forward with her career, she is working to continue her studies to law school with a special interest in Urban, Land Use and Environmental Law.
Spencer Martin is a proud Texan but, don’t hold that against him. He currently lives in Kansas City, KS with his wife, son, two dogs and two cats.
Spencer has been an educator for almost his entire career in Africa, Texas and now Kansas. He serves as the Lead Secondary Science Curriculum Instructional Coach for KCKPS, supporting science teachers in the district.
Spencer owns VanLifeKC, where people can rent camper vans and trailers to choose their own adventure in Kansas City and beyond. He also does freelance graphic and web design for his business Spence Creative Design.
In his free time, Spencer loves to camp and hike with family and friends. He enjoys sunflower seeds and a good book to read while taking a break from the trails or in one of his campers.
Conservation & Policy Work Group Member
Scott Schulte has 26 years of experience working to protect natural resources. He served HCA as Board President for six years, from its founding in January 2012 until March of 2018.
Scott is the Senior Environmental Planner for Vireo (formerly Patti Banks Associates) since 2005 where he supports natural resource planning, design, and policy development projects. He has been a Lecturer at the University of Kansas since 2009, first in the Urban Planning Program and at the Edwards Campus since 2015, instructing undergraduates and graduate students in environmental planning and environmental impact assessment. Previously, he served as the Board Vice President and Treasurer of Blue River Watershed Association for two years. Scott has extensive experience in watershed management, natural resources planning and restoration, public policy, community engagement and training.
Outreach and Education Work Group Member
Roberta has been active in Kansas City are conservation for two decades. As career staff at the Environmental Protection Agency, she helped to start KC WildLands as part of EPAs Regional Ecosystems Priority, and chaired the WildLands executive committee for five years. After witnessing the birth of HCA as an outgrowth of conservation planning convened by Wildlands, Roberta was once again able to use her Community Partnership role to support the beginning of HCA programming and assumption of a leadership role in the Urban Waters Federal Partnership efforts on the Blue River. Since her retirement from EPA in 2017, Roberta has remained an active volunteer with the Outreach and Education committee and looks forward to her new role as board member.
Currently, Roberta is a Program Manager of outdoor education for Green Works in KC.
Gerald Shecter is the sustainability coordinator for KCMO Office of Environmental Quality where he helped develop and implement the Climate Protection Plan. He works on the greenhouse gas inventory updates and facilitates the Policies and Regulations Green Team. He is also a member of the Resource Management Green Team. Before the Office of Environmental Quality, he co-founded the Metropolitan Energy Center where he developed Project Living Proof.
Along with environmental projects, Gerald has experience in housing programs and serves on several committees and boards. He has 47 years of public and private management experience and an MA in Urban Economics from the New School for Social Research.
Regan Tokos grew up in Nebraska but tells people she's from Kansas City because it's where she spent the first two years of her life. She returned to the city in 2018, and in August 2019 she earned her Master's in Regional and Community Planning with a minor in Geography from Kansas State University (Go Cats).
Regan is a Community Planner with Hoxie Collective where she works to empower communities through data access, resources, mapping, and improved engagement. Her passion for photography and the outdoors led her to the Blue River. Then her passion for map making, education, and making the world a better place led her to Heartland Conservation Alliance, where she hopes to help with the preservation of the Blue River and the surrounding land any way she can. In her spare time you can find Regan hiking, hanging out with her cat Aurelius, or making soup.
Our Steering Council
Heartland Conservation Alliance is honored to have the leadership and expertise of our Steering Council. The Council represents our Alliance partners and provides guidance for implementing our work.
Each Council member serves a two-year term and represents a key Partner community including: Business, Education, Government, Higher education, Land trust, Nonprofit, Neighborhood/landowner, Public land manager and Water utility.
Council members support our work by:
Supporting staff and Board to fulfill our mission
Bringing ideas to the table
Connecting the larger group to resources
Broadening our networking opportunities
Using collective assets to implement plans and projects
Provide a sounding board, especially when issues may conflict
Provide direction and leadership
2018 HCA Steering Council Strategic Evaluation Meeting: Pictured: Back row, left to right, Stephen VanRhein, Missouri Department of Conservation; Lauren Garrott, HCA Board Secretary; Brian Nowotny, Jackson County Parks + Rec; Christina Hoxie, Hoxie Collective; Ayana Curran-Howes, HCA AmeriCorps VISTA; Andrea Clark. Middle row, left to right, Laura Don Wilkison, Artist; Lynn Youngblood, Blue River Watershed Association; Ginny Moore, The Conservation Fund, Bill Fessler, KC Parks. Front row, left to right, Amanda Graor, Mid-America Regional Council; Laura Adams, Black & Veatch; Patti Banks, Vireo; Roberta Vogel-Leutung; Jill Erickson, HCA; and Connie Chapman.
Brian is the Deputy Director for Park Operations for Jackson County Parks + Rec. Jackson County’s award winning parks system is the third largest county parks system in the nation covering over 20,000 acres. With a background in landscape architecture, Brian oversees operations, planning and park development for our county’s 690,000 residents. Originally from Dallas, Texas, Brian has lived in the Kansas City area since 2001.
Stephen Van Rhein
Since 2003, Stephen has been a Community Conservationist at the MO Department of Conservation working with cities and counties in the Kansas City metropolitan area to incorporate conservation friendly practices as the area grows. He has served the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks addressing rural water quality issues and spent 2+ years in Cameroon as a Peace Corps aquaculture extensionist. He has a MS in Ecology from Illinois State Univ. and a BS in Microbiology from the University of Missouri.
With over 20 years of diverse professional experience in interiors, architecture, and planning Christina coalesces interdisciplinary teams and works closely with the people of each unique community to build upon their assets, strategize transformational solutions, and fulfill their shared vision. She believes that planning provides a pathway to greater environmental quality, economic opportunity, and social equity. Christina practices this discipline with an open heart and mind, combining technical expertise with an adaptive community-centered engagement approach.
Joshua Anderson, 5th generation Missouri farmer. Grew up farming conventionally in Northern Missouri, Iowa and Arkansas. After High school Joshua served in both the Army as a medic and with the Peace Corps in Agro-Forestry. He also earned degrees in Geography & mapping systems from UCM, studied international development in Holland and is a alumni of UC Santa Cruz's "Center for Agro-Ecology & Sustainable Food systems. His work in non-profits began after returning home and helped start the Farmer Veteran Coalition. Currently he is the farmboss at Boys Grow where they manage 30 acres and empower urban youth by teaching entrepreneurship through Agriculture.
Suzanne has been a school counselor working with youth in the Kansas City metro area since 2012. She is excited to promote environmental awareness and conservation through the Heartland Conservation Alliance.
Ian was born and raised in Kansas, spending most of his youth lost in the woods, often on someone else's property. He graduated from K-State in 2014 with degrees in environmental science and geography. Ian has worked in the environmental field for ten years with several organizations including KDWPT, USDA, K-State Agronomy, USGS-Alaska Science Center, SynTech Research, KDHE and the City of Overland Park.
Ian currently works as the Water Quality Specialist for the City of Overland Park, managing environmental programs, education and sustainability for the City. Since taking on the new job in 2016, Ian has actively worked to become more engaged with partnering organizations like the Heartland Conservation Alliance to work collaboratively on conservation projects across the Metro.
Joe graduated from Iowa State University with a Master of Science degree in Sustainable Agriculture and Entomology. At ISU he developed a healthy obsession with native plants, native pollinators, and building a more resilient agroecosystem. An AmeriCorps VISTA position with BoysGrow brought him to KC while a position researching honey bees kept him here after his year of service. Joe is excited to get back to his roots and become more involved with the KC community and to help grow a sustainable KC.
Currently Joe is the Program Coordinator for the Heartland Tree Alliance with Bridging the Gap. In his free time, he can be found playing ultimate frisbee, camping, hiking, or floating a river.
Lara Isch is the Sustainability Manager for the City of Kansas City, Missouri. She has spent the majority of her 20 years in the environmental field promoting the importance of public education and involvement to create meaningful change. An unapologetic environmental generalist, her career includes experience with consulting firms, government entities, and non-profits in subjects ranging from natural resource management to regulatory compliance. Her passions include public service, backpacking, rivers, and all things Kansas City.
Victoria L Dunkin
Victoria comes from Grandview, MO and is currently attending Oregon State University online for a dual BS and MS in Natural Resources, specializing in Ecological Restoration and Sustainable Agriculture. She is also in the Kansas Master Naturalist Program this spring. She hopes to combine this with her degree to localize her education and work in prairie and wetland ecology and in education for landowners to encourage sustainable, biologically diverse land management.
She is passionate about creating a sustainable agricultural and water system access in a foundation for equality for all people.
She works full time for Service Experts heating and cooling, and is currently looking for opportunities to enter the field of research and environmental protection.
HCA relies on the expertise of our community to do our work
Restoring Vacant Lots TAG Leader
Hilary started Syntax Land Design, LLC in 2010 and continues to develop protocols and materials essential to enhancing and supporting healthy soil. She loves the combination of science, engineering and art that the practice of landscape architecture affords her. She holds a Master’s Degree in Landscape Architecture from Kansas State University and a BA from Yale and has certification as a Permaculture Designer. She has studied with soil microbiologists and farmers in her quest for what defines regenerative design.
She continues her education at every opportunity and has had the good fortune to study with some of her heroes. She is working toward successfully influencing the midwest region and beyond to a more realistic appreciation of the changes necessary for leaving a livable planet for our children.
Courtney is the Owner-Operator and Ecologist of Native Lands LLC, an ecological restoration and native landscaping company based out of Lawrence, Kansas. In addition to her work managing native landscapes, Courtney provides land stewardship training and native plant education to diverse groups, from pre-school to adult ages. Community education and outreach that provides connections to native plants, field sciences, and outdoor experiences is a core focus of the chosen projects at Native Lands.
Collaborating with Heartland Conservation Alliance provides the Native Lands team an opportunity to directly support conservation work along the Blue River and the communities built in it's watershed. Courtney has been a part of the conservation community in Kansas City for over a decade, as a volunteer, a researcher and a Restoration Ecologist. She earned her Master's degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas.
Jill Erickson, a Kansas City native, earned a degree in Journalism and Graphic Design from Northwest Missouri State University and has spent the last 25 years managing nonprofit organizations at various levels whose missions have supported the arts, education, urban agriculture and most recently conservation. As the co-founder and current Executive Director, Jill has co-led the Middle Blue River Urban Waters Federal Partnership since 2013 and has served as the Ambassador for the since 2016. She is passionate about the importance of nature in cities and thrives on bringing together diverse ideas and voices.
Sarah Benal grew up in Nebraska where she received her degree in English and Global Studies from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2015. She lived in South Carolina for four years where she earned her MFA in Fiction Writing in 2019 from the University of South Carolina. Sarah has a strong background in education, particularly in after-school programs and camps, and has worked with Louder Than a Bomb: Great Plains, The Loft Literary Center, NSAA Speech and Debate, and Split P Writers in the Schools. Sarah loves short story collections, dark-roast coffee and yoga.
Sarah believes in the importance of a sense of place, and how that sense of place helps people become more empathetic and nurturing toward their communities. She believes that we are all lifetime learners and strives to create spaces where everyone feels comfortable to ask questions, embrace their space, and build connections through shared experiences. She encourages everyone to be enthusiastic, and not be scared to share what you're passionate about.
Meghan grew up in Baltimore, Maryland and has lived in Kansas City since 1990. Her professional career focused on helping individuals improve their professional and personal performance and has done so through Learning and Development leadership in multiple small and large companies in Kansas City. Meghan ran her own Leadership Development consulting practice. In addition, she sold residential real estate before the 2008 housing crisis.
Meghan’s passion is nonprofit work aimed at improving the community. Most recently she served as Workforce Development Coach through Rockhurst University. She is excited to be part of the HCA team and assist in the restoration and preservation of the Blue River for the benefit of the Missouri and Kansas communities.
Meghan and her husband Wade have three daughters who live in active communities throughout the country. Meghan and Wade enjoy bike riding and recreational activities on the water.