Dream jobs gone sideways
New leaders thrown into challenging times
By Alec Peters, Jay Gamel and Ann Q. PetersNorthern Sonoma Valley does not have a lot of institutions, but the ones that exist are longstanding, cherished, and coincidentally have all undergone leadership changes at a time of extraordinary challenges and testing of resolve, whether it be from catastrophic wildfire damage, the threat of wildfire, broad power outages, unhealthy smoke events, and even a pandemic thrown in. The Kenwood Press checked in with many of these leaders who took dream jobs, and then were faced immediately with both the expected, and the unexpected.
Matt LeffertExecutive Director, Jack London State Historic Park
Matt Leffert was looking forward to leading the dynamic non-profit organization that has managed Jack London State Historic Park after it was closed during a 2012 state financial crisis. He is executive director of Jack London Park Partners, itself an outgrowth of the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association, which has brought revenue, membership, and worldwide fame to a once fairly moribund park, former home of one of the world’s most recognized authors.
“It’s not like anything I ever expected, prepared for, or planned for in any way.” Leffert said. “We had great plans to really build on the (existing) momentum when the proverbial rug was pulled out from under us. We’ve had to create new plans, sometimes daily.”
The amount of planning and coordination it takes to run a park in partnership with the State of California has been one of their biggest challenges. “What was once reliable income for our operating budget is no longer there. Our partners, Transcendence Theatre Company, did not happen this year, and while they thankfully managed a virtual season, we’ve had to do extra fundraising to backfill that lost income.”
Local support and interest have “insured that this park continues to thrive,” Leffert said. “For a group of relatively few supporters and members, they have really come through in a big way.”
A campaign to sell annual passes surpassed all expectations.
“Our pitch was, ‘Please support us now by buying an Annual Pass and as soon as we are open again, we’ll make your pass valid from that date a year forward.’ That campaign was hugely successful.”
A concurrent appeal for extra donations also did well, with the board of directors each making their contributions early to help with the early months. “It made all the difference,” Leffert said.
The park has seen attendance numbers even higher than last year, since it reopened in August.
“Our parks and open spaces are essential resources for us,” Leffert said. “When there were no other options, our park was a place to come. This is the perfect place to be socially distant, to get some exercise and to reconnect with nature and all of the health benefits they offer.”
Volunteers still come and are helping with backlogs of administrative work, getting more retail products online, developing new school programs, a new “Take Five with Jack” Youtube series, and more.
Besides seeing an end to the pandemic, Leffert hopes to get a new contract signed with the state to continue conducting business. That has been delayed for two years.
Daren BellachFire Chief, Kenwood Fire Protection District
After serving 28 years with a fire department, you’d think a person would experience just about everything. Daren Bellach had that many years under his belt when he took the job of Fire Chief for the Kenwood Fire Protection Districton June 1, 2017. Four months later, the October firestorm that exploded nearby and destroyed hundreds of homes and forced the entire town to evacuate for the first time in its history brought a whole new perspective.
“In 2017 we saw a fire season like we never saw before,” Bellach recalls. “It was overwhelming, powerful, something that made me look at the organization and see how, in the worst situation, we really came together as a team. In 2020, it’s almost the norm.”
The 2017 fire offered a glimpse of what was to come. “It was a huge challenge dealing with first responders’ fears, too, since their homes and families were threatened while they were out fighting fires and seeing conditions none of us had ever seen before.”
COVID is a scary situation, too, and changes business all around.
“We conduct trainings, trainings and more trainings,” Bellach said. “Every day, we wake up and have our day; Zoom meetings, facemasks, hand sanitizers. It is so different from the everyday life we used to have.”
Fortunately, the new dangers have also informed citizens about the powerful need to step up and volunteer, contribute and support those who are on the front line.
“We picked up a few volunteers since 2017,” Bellach said, which has become increasingly difficult with the lack of young families in the area.
“I think community members saw a need and want to help. In 2017 the community was evacuated and could not get back to help. After having those fires and being in those situations, people came and asked, ‘What can I do? Donate? Give?’ Some signed up.”
Since 2017 people have seen an increase in the length of our wildfire season. “We are seeing fire conditions that we haven’t seen before, calling for a lot more training to improve our safety levels. Our number one priority is life safety, watching out for each other, and not putting people in areas where they would be endangered.”
Executive Director, Robert Ferguson Observatory
In September of 2019, Chris Cable was the brand new, first ever, executive director of the Valley of the Moon Observatory Association, hired to expand its frontiers in membership, programming and funding. The association operates the Robert Ferguson Observatory (RFO).
The observatory is nestled in Sugarloaf State Park and the hillsides were stark and raw from the 2017 wildfire when he arrived, but the night sky viewing was great, volunteers abounded, and a wide swath of community resources was waiting to be tapped. Having run science oriented non-profits from Anchorage to Colorado for 25 years, he’s worked through trying times, but a global pandemic wasn’t one of them.
The observatory has been closed since March, save for a few outdoor events: BYOB&C – Bring Your Own Binoculars & Chair – attracting modest crowds.
Looking on the bright side, “We don’t have anybody to lay off,” Cable said, gleefully noting that he has actually hired someone to cope with nearly 250 volunteers. Amateur astronomers are a dedicated lot.
“Unanticipated challenges are part of everyday life for the average executive director that runs a small, all largely volunteer-based nonprofit,” Cable said, ticking off issues like revenue dropping 80 percent and not being able to open the telescopes to the public.
“That hurts, for sure,” he said, but he has taken advantage of the extra time he has available, working from home.
“The silver lining is that we really rolled up our sleeves and are doing a lot of planning and development on a number of fronts,” he said. “We are adding two board members next Saturday (Sept. 26) and a third likely in October.”
Cable said the RFO board has been looking within to do strategic planning, sponsoring a new annual appeal and a corporate sponsorship program. A visit to another, larger nonprofit paid off handsomely, too.
“We told a good story to the Wilson Trust and they gave us a contribution,” money that funded the new volunteer coordinator and put some money in the bank. “We have shored up our databases, installed new software programs, and now have an active research-based committee run by a professional astronomer.”
The rent is free, expenses are minimal, and new outreach programs will go a long way to shoring up the observatory’s modest budget, which in 2018 was $50,000.
Executive Director, Sonoma Land Trust
Eamon O’Byrne stepped into the Sonoma Land Trust Executive Director’s job last September, coming from nearly 20 years of working with complex conservation projects and educational programming at The Nature Conservancy and the San Francisco Maritime National Park Association, and most recently managing the ecological restoration of the Santa Cruz Island Preserve.
“Although it has been an extraordinary confluence of pretty tough events and circumstances, I can’t say it was largely unanticipated, and that’s largely because anyone who spends any time in a career like conservation learns to expect the unexpected.”
He was well aware of the increasing fire dangers. “That’s actually what drew me to the job. The ability to roll up my sleeves and work with an organization that was dedicated to coming up with solutions for (these problems).
“We are having to think more about what we are doing to contribute solutions to these problems. How are we going to weather the next couple of years of health crises, fires, economic downturns – certainly we are dealing with all of these things.”
Sonoma Land Trust is a major player in Sonoma County and Northern California conservation efforts, and is part of the Sonoma Valley Wildlands Collaborative. Land acquisitions are targeted as well as spontaneous, with SLT actively seeking to preserve water resources and wetlands, preserving wildlife corridors. SLT has been working with Cal Fire to burrow corridors deep within densely overgrown forests to help with fire fighting.
What’s been tough is not being able to be near coworkers.
“Overnight, we switched our staff from being a bustling group of people having hallway conversations and great ideas over the kitchen table to everyone working remotely, O’Byrne said. “We feed off the creativity we bring to the office, the camaraderie and teamwork. It’s a big change to meet over Zoom calls and conduct things remotely.
“We try to come up with ways to find some of that excitement we get feeding off one another in person. It’s hard when you are on your own working at your kitchen table, hard to do that day after day and retain that strong sense of connection.”
On the other hand, everyone has learned a lot more about working with the Internet, with computers, distance learning and work. “If we’d planned to (do that), it would have taken months, even years to work out. It has allowed us to reach a much wider audience than we did in the past.”
Executive Director, Quarryhill Botanical Garden
Scot Medbury had just completed a very successful tenure as the president of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden when he moved out to Glen Ellen to take over as the new executive director of Quarryhill Botanical Garden. His last day in New York was Jan. 31 and he started at Quarryhill on Feb. 3.
He had barely unpacked when COVID forced Quarryhill to shut its doors in mid-March. Just before having to close, Medbury had attended an event at the White Barn at Oak Hill Farm in Glen Ellen to meet other local non-profit leaders, with them all aware of what health safety requirements were coming.
“It was all dawning on all of us we wouldn’t be meeting like this for a while,” Medbury said.
Though Medbury was well acquainted with Quarryhill, its renowned collection of wild-source Asian plants, and its former longtime director Bill McNamara, having to stop operations so suddenly was not what he had in mind.
“I didn’t have a chance to meet everybody,” said Medbury, referring to meeting in person his board of directors, staff, a thousand paid members, and the general community. There have been a lot of Zoom meetings. “It’s been hard.”
Medbury tinkered with different ideas on how open up in a limited fashion, but shifting COVID rules from county health officials made that effort pretty much impossible for a while.
Medbury, who lives on the property, was basically the sole staff member there for a month, handling a lot of the maintenance and even learning how to drive a tractor.
“I’ve tried to make the most of this strange time.”
On a different, somewhat positive note given the situation, the pandemic allowed Medbury to begin to address a lot of deferred maintenance projects, bringing in a battalion of contractors and the like to tackle numerous projects while social distancing.
Quarryhill, a non-profit, has been able to maintain a healthy financial picture, even adding 200 new members since its closure. The garden was able to open back up to members at the end of the spring, and plans on opening back up to the public in early October. And it is full speed ahead for Medbury’s goal to take Quarryhill to the “next level,” expanding education opportunities for youth and the community, hiring key administrative and program staff and more.
“We’re eager to get back to some semblance of normalcy,” said Medbury.
Doyle Dietz Allen
Rector, St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church
Episcopal priest Doyle Dietz Allen interviewed for the position of rector of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Kenwood in September of 2017. She accepted the position, which was to begin in December, and she and her husband Tom prepared to move from Tucson, Arizona, where Priest Doyle was assistant rector of a large congregation, to beautiful Sonoma Valley where she would be a first-time rector of a smaller and more rural church. Three weeks later the fires swept through Sonoma County, including parts of Kenwood and Glen Ellen, and her first thought was “Oh no, these people are hurting and scared.” She said, “It never crossed my mind not to do it,” meaning move here in the wake of a huge natural and economic disaster. “That’s just part of life.”
Almost three years later, having settled in with the congregation and all the new relationships that come with it, she finds herself in the midst of yet another fire season on top of the Coronavirus pandemic and all the emotional and economic disruption it has brought over that past six months. But church members are responding in ways that are encouraging and positive. They’ve had to give up certain things, like worshipping together in person, but Priest Doyle says that people are responding positively, and continuing with ministries that are just as dynamic as before. They are calling each other and checking in, filling needs, and using Zoom to reach out in myriad ways, from Coffee Hour to Evening prayer, Bible Study to Happy Hour. Sunday services are also via Zoom, rather than being prerecorded for viewing on YouTube, and people like that much better.
Priest Doyle sees her role as administering the sacraments, spiritual direction, teaching, and lifting up the people to initiate their own ministries. “We’re learning and growing spiritually, and reaching outside the church, of course.” To that end, their focus is on the hungry, the homeless, and being a resource in the community.
Priest Doyle reflects, “It’s an interesting time, as hard as it is. There are really good things happening. We’re able to think bigger.”
Rev. Larry Hallett
Pastor, Kenwood Community Church
Over a year ago, Larry Hallett moved with his wife, Pamela Travers, to Oakmont after 40 years in Southern California.
After a year-long search, Hallett had been tapped in the spring of 2019 to become pastor of the iconic Kenwood Community Church (KCC). The KCC closed to the public in mid-March due to COVID-19, and decided to remain closed for any on-site activities during the pandemic.
“We’ve missed those opportunities to be together,” said Hallett. “When something devastating happens, people normally flock to church, and people can’t do that now.”
To fill the void and recreate a sense of fellowship, Hallett and KCC members decided to take advantage of the power to communicate through technology.
Since the spring, services for every week are put on YouTube. Once a month, earlier on Sunday, people can drive by church and pick up a small sealed cup with communion wine and a wafer, drive home, and take part in communion while they watch the service.
Services average about 60-70 viewers these days, hitting a peak of 130 at Easter.
Zoom has become a staple of the church, used by groups of church members for bible study, meditation, book study, women’s group, men’s group and more.
“We might as well embrace it because it’s the reality of life now,” said Hallett of technology as a way to help people feel involved. The platforms are, “new in our lexicon – these are things we never thought of a year ago.”
Keeping in touch with church members has been essential during the pandemic, which tends to isolate people and cuts them off from normal social interaction and routines. The church’s deacons have split up the congregation, and make regular phone calls to each one, touching base and checking on their well-being.
Hallett is currently involved in trying to organize outdoor, socially- distanced and masked fellowship events, with the county-allowed maximum of 12 people. Hallett hopes that county health and safety rules will soon allow more people to come to outdoor worship, though some church members have said they won’t come to in-person services until a COVID vaccine is available.
Principal, Dunbar Elementary School
“As a leader you need to have hope and ensure you share that message,” said Dunbar Elementary School principal Jillian Beall.
Beall had to have that hope and optimism in spades as only two months after being selected for the coveted principal position, the October 2017 firestorm ripped through Sonoma Valley, tearing through the Dunbar campus in Glen Ellen. The destruction included a lost stage, burned garden, incinerated kindergarten play yard equipment, and more. Students couldn’t return for weeks, many having experienced a traumatic evacuation experience and extensive fire damage to their respective communities.
Then the PG&E power outages forced school closure. Then months of online learning because of COVID-19. Then more threat of fire. It’s lot to deal with for elementary school children, not to mentions teachers, staff, and their own families.
“It’s made us stronger as a Dunbar family,” said Beall. “I’d only known the staff 2-4 months, and I was so impressed and appreciative of the heart and commitment to one another. I got to see that out of the chaos it became clear what the priorities were for Dunbar.”
The Dunbar family has become expert in persevering over the last three years, learning to adapt in the most difficult of circumstances.
“When things do come our way now, we know the process of moving forward,” said Beall.
And strong community support from Glen Ellen and beyond has made a big difference. Residents, community organizations, Dunbar families, Dunbar and Sonoma Valley School District staff, all chipped in with money and sweat to make Dunbar whole after the fire.
“It’s helped immensely to have that community support. It helps drive us in our purpose,” said Beall.
And her message to Dunbar’s students?
“Regardless of what happens, you belong at Dunbar and we are always here for you.”