MELISSA BAFFA, Executive Director, joined Ventura Land Trust in 2021. She served on VLT’s Advisory Council and Development and Marketing Committee since 2019. Previous to joining VLT, she was the Development Officer in charge of Foundation and Corporate Relations at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, and an instructor with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at California State University, Channel Islands. Her nonprofit management experience prior to that gave her insight into operations at several different Ventura County nonprofit organizations, from top to bottom. Baffa also taught middle school science in Simi Valley and marine biology in the Upward Bound program at California Lutheran University, and worked as a research associate at Amgen.
In 2015, Melissa was selected as a Science Communication Fellow with the Ocean Exploration Trust, exploring the deep sea as part of Dr. Robert Ballard’s Corps of Exploration in 2015, 2016, and 2018. She is also active in her community, serving as an advisor to KidSTREAM Children’s Museum and Leap Lab Ventura. Previously, she served on the Board of Directors of the Ventura County Leadership Academy, the Ventura County Women’s Economic Roundtable, the Ventura County Women’s Political Council, the California League of Park Associations, and Oxnard Downtown Management District. Melissa graduated from California Lutheran University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology and lives in Ventura, walking distance from Ventura Land Trust's Big Rock Preserve. When she is not working or volunteering, you are likely to find her outdoors, either in her garden or exploring the rich natural world that surrounds us, with camera in hand. You can reach Melissa at [email protected]
ANNETTE BALDWIN, Deputy Director, joined the Land Trust in July, 2017. Annette grew up in Ventura and can’t imagine a better place to call home. Her love of the outdoors arose out of a childhood spent exploring California’s many campgrounds, lakes, and National Forests from her family’s station wagon, winding through the state’s most scenic areas and pitching a tent wherever the road took them. Her favorite local adventures include trail running and backpacking; she even became engaged while exploring the Ojai back-country. After graduating from Cal State Northridge with a BS in Family and Consumer Sciences, Annette’s passion for visual arts led to a career that merged her design background with event production. Annette comes to the Land Trust with eight years of graphic design and marketing experience. Having commuted to work out of town for over a decade, Annette is thrilled to now both live and work in Ventura, share her environmental passion with others and be a responsible steward of Ventura’s natural resources. In her free time, you can find Annette taking photographs, spending time with family, or gardening with her husband, Ron. [email protected]
CHRIS CHALEUNRATH, Development Director, joined VLT in March 2022. Born in Washington DC to Lao and French parents, Chris gained an early awareness of serving one’s community as he witnessed the impact of the grassroot non-profit founded by his father. He also greatly appreciated opportunities to step out of the city and enjoy public natural spaces particularly Shenandoah National Park.
After receiving his finance degree at the University of Mary Washington, Chris worked in investment banking in New York City before swiftly returning to his true calling, supporting nonprofits. His career now spans over 20 years where he has served in various development and consulting roles in New York, Washington DC, the Bay Area and Southern California. Prior to VLT, Chris had the privilege to serve leading organizations in their respective fields including Heifer International, New Tech Network, the International Campaign for Tibet, and most recently Earthjustice. Additionally, Chris serves as a board member for the Newcomers Community Service Center, council member for the Culinary Institute of America, and consultant for Ocular Associates.
As a Ventura resident with his wife Ana-Maria, their dog Scotty, and cat Jordi, Chris is honored to have the opportunity to improve and preserve natural spaces in his community. He spends most of his free time outdoors hiking, camping, cycling, snowboarding, on motorcycle rides, or cooking for friends.
HEATHER BURTON, Development Coordinator, grew up in Napa Valley working on her family’s ranch and spent every minute outside exploring. She attended CSUCI and received a degree in Environmental Science and Resource Management with a minor in Art. After graduation, she worked at Conejo Open Space Conservation Agency as an Open Space Technician managing volunteer groups, developing and building trail systems, working on invasive species removal projects, running educational programs, and maintaining open space facilities. After moving back to Napa, Heather volunteered with Napa County Regional Park & Open Space District maintaining their open space areas. She was also a founding member of Women Stand Up–St. Helena and put on Women Summit Napa Valley, an event created to inspire women to get involved in the political process. Heather has worked on environmental projects worldwide, including mangrove forest and coastal reef preservation in Jalisco, mapping and removing invasive species in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and reviewing sustainable environmental policies in Japan. In her spare time, she is an avid trail runner and backpacker.
LESLIE VELEZ, Outreach Director, Leslie has worked in nonprofit fundraising for the past 9 years in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and Ventura, CA. She has experience in annual fund, corporate support, grants management, event production, and community engagement. Leslie really loves weaving together people and passions to encourage support for the Ventura Land Trust.
DAN HULST, Preserve Director, joined the VLT team in August, 2018. In addition to managing public access across VLT preserves, Dan works to develop trails, manage fuel loads, and carry out restoration projects across VLT properties. The youngest of 9 siblings, Dan grew up in Northern California, in the small town of Waterford. (pop. 8,000), attended Central Catholic High School in Modesto and went on to graduate from San Diego State University in 2014 with a B.S. in Business Administration, with an emphasis in Entrepreneurship. In 2016, Dan moved to Ventura and began volunteering with Ventura Land Trust. Dan is passionate about land conservation and the preservation of land for public use. He enjoys spending time in the ocean, the mountains, and just generally being outside. He hiked the 210-mile John Muir trail in 2016 & 2017. Dan is thrilled to finally align his job with his passion for the outdoors. Say hello to Dan at [email protected]
BRYAN GONZALES, Preserve Assistant, joined the Land Trust in June, 2020. Though he didn’t grow up here, Bryan has Ventura in his blood (his grandfather grew up in Ventura over 100 years ago in a house off “The Avenue”). Annual childhood trips to Yosemite Valley and many horse packing trips to Yosemite’s back-country fostered Bryan’s strong connection to the natural world around us; Bryan’s earliest memories include wonder-filled interactions with Yosemite’s Forest Rangers, bears, and cathedral of granite. Bryan was born and raised in California’s Central Valley where he continued to live until 2008 when he accepted a job in Ventura. He and his wife (Carole), and their five children quickly knew Ventura would be their home for good. Bryan spent 20+ years as the Chief Financial Officer for the Human Services Agencies (social services) in the counties of Kern and Ventura and assumed he would continue on this path. However, losing his house in the 2017 Thomas Fire had the effect of helping Bryan decide to take steps to redirect his life back to his earliest passions for the environment. As the Preserve Assistant assigned to Harmon Canyon, Bryan looks forward to protecting, developing, and being inspired by (and helping others be inspired by) the beauty and wonder that the preserve holds for our community. If the surf is up you can find Bryan in the lineup, otherwise he can be reached at [email protected]
KATIE DANIELS, Land Steward, keeps Willoughby Preserve in the Ventura River Estuary and Big Rock Preserve clean and safe. Working with VLT staff, volunteers and community partners, Katie’s main responsibilities are to remove invasive species and trash from the property, plant native plants, prepare and submit reports on VLT’s restoration activities, and coordinate with other community organizations to compassionately manage homeless activity and keep land along the river as natural and safe as possible.
Katie moved from the East coast to Ventura County in 2006 to work in e-commerce. She quickly discovered a passion for conservation, thanks to routine weekend wilderness adventures across the state, and a field biology class at Moorpark College. While continuing to serve local small businesses through managerial roles in Customer Service, Purchasing, and Operations, Katie worked to obtain a BS in Biology, with an emphasis in Ecology. During her final years at Cal State Channel Islands, Katie interned with the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology (WFVZ) and the Student Conservation Association (SCA). As an SCA intern, she was responsible for producing and executing spontaneous environmental education opportunities for visitors, as well as assisting with land stewardship on Duke Farms’ 2,000+ acre property in New Jersey. More recently, Katie volunteered with Ventura Audubon Society to provide Western Snowy Plover information to Ormond Beach visitors. And since 2017, she has worked with a local environmental consulting firm that manages conservation projects in southern California; as a Biological Field Technician, she is responsible for monitoring cowbird traps along the Santa Clara River during the nesting season.
When not at work, you’ll find Katie spending time with loved ones, roller skating, enjoying downtown, and exploring the great outdoors. [email protected]
CAROLE COMSTOCK GONZALES, Accounting Manager, joined Ventura Land Trust in October 2020. With over 25 years of accounting and bookkeeping experience, Carole has quickly immersed herself in the full accounting functions of the organization.
Carole grew up in the Santa Clarita Valley and spent her childhood summers camping, hiking and exploring the expansive outdoor playground of California and neighboring states. Gini, Carole’s mom, was a Docent Naturalist in LA County at Placerita Canyon Nature Center. From an early age, she instilled in her a strong work ethic, a love of nature’s beauty, and a deep respect for the harmonious balance between humans and the natural world.
Carole’s insatiable quest for adventure has taken her to numerous National Parks, most recently completing the Rim 2 Rim trek across the Grand Canyon. When not planning new adventures, Carole leads an active lifestyle full of running, cycling, hiking, yoga, cooking and spending time with her family.
BROOKE ASHWORTH, Senior Conservation Advisor, was the founding president of the organization and served on the Board of Trustees for eleven years. Brooke holds a BSc in Environmental Planning & Management from UC Davis with an emphasis in urban planning. She has worked in government as a planner, as an environmental consultant, and for international law firms as an environmental analyst specializing in environmental due diligence in real estate transactions and client compliance/enforcement defense. Brooke also served for seven years on the City of Ventura Parks & Recreation Commission. Her interests in the natural environment and land use planning principles have come together in her passion for preserving Ventura’s wild places. Brooke plays a key role in negotiating VLT’s land acquisitions, serves as liaison with our real estate counsel, and advises on planning matters related to VLT’s land holdings. Brooke and her husband, Everard, can’t think of a better place than Ventura to have raised their two children. Brooke’s favorite hobbies include mixing up craft cocktails, body boarding, birdwatching, and gathering friends and family for a fine meal. For nearly 20 years she has walked Ventura’s hillside neighborhoods with her “walking group.” You can reach Brooke at [email protected]
DAVID WHITE, Once Upon a Watershed Program Director, Lead Field Staff, has a B.S. in Biological Sciences and Ph.D. in Cell Biology from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He has been involved in numerous environmental groups in Ventura County for the past 25 years. In addition to running Once upon a Watershed, he is also the Executive Director of the Center for Regenerative Agriculture. One of Dave's favorite things to do is to plant trees with kids.
You can reach David at [email protected]
HEATHER KING, Ventura Wild Program Director, Lead Field Staff, is most profoundly moved by the relationship between children and nature. “Nothing else has the same mirror to the nature of being human; A sense of calm, a surge of energy, a marvelous moment that lasts a lifetime, these are the gifts of nature, and I can only hope to create the space for that connection to happen more often”. Heather has two daughters (her best teachers) and is married to Greg Grant. With a Masters Degree in Outdoor Education Administration, a Bachelor of Science Degree in Environmental Education and a Multiple Subject Teaching Credential, she continues to seek new insight and knowledge of nature, kids and herself. She is a professional outdoor educator and mentor with over 25 years of experience. Her broad range of positions have included outdoor education coordinator and science teacher at Oak Grove High School, wilderness educator for the International Center for Earth Concerns on the Taft property in Ojai, the Sunbow Ecology Center in Ojai, and Naturalists at Large in Ventura among many other programs around the country and internationally. Currently Heather continues her work as the director and lead instructor of Ventura Wild, a program of the Ventura Land Trust as of January 2020. With a growing staff team of leaders and a community of families and collaborators, Heather hopes to solidify a sustainable organization that reflects the diversity of our communities and provides access to nature to everyone. This is a heartfelt profession for Heather, who is committed to fostering a playful sense of discovery and wonder that leads to a joyful curiosity about life and learning. You can reach Heather at [email protected]
TRUDY (SARAH TRUDEAU), Education Coordinator, Lead Field Staff, was raised in the Ojai Valley, finding growth within herself deep beneath the mud that swallowed her bare feet. She believes one of the greatest gifts in her life was the support from her family, to trail off into the field, following her curiosities even at a very young age. Closely accompanied by her two goats, she’d travel to the pond to search for tadpoles or carve tunnels within the fields of mustard or follow the bees around the garden. With this freedom to discover, her youthful curiosity and confidence was able to flourish. This admiration and respect for her environment continued into her playful adulthood. She headed North into the PNW, where she earned her B.S. in Biology while building a career in wildlife conservation and rehabilitation. During this time, she found the love and gift of education through her focus on public outreach. After 10 years working with wildlife for various Veterinary Hospitals and Conservancies, she decided to turn her efforts fully towards nourishing the connection between our youth and the preservation of our environment. She has since returned to Ojai, where she is happily educating, climbing, birding, gardening, backpacking, and continuing to play.
With awareness, comes understanding. Respect and conservation quickly follow.
You can reach Trudy at [email protected]
SARA MACCRACKEN, Lead Field Staff, has been passionate about children and nature as far back as she can remember. She has an M.A. in Somatic Psychology from Naropa University. It was here that she first heard about Wilderness Therapy and took the idea with her into the different settings she worked. She helped develop and run a program for at-risk youth in Longmont, Co. and took young adults to Central America doing service projects throughout the area. Sara has studied edible and medicinal plants for the past 25 years. She currently lives in Ojai with her two sons and husband. She is very happy to be bringing education to the schools about our precious watershed.
AMY DAVIS, Lead Field Staff, has been a naturalist/educator/guide for nearly 20 years. Her love of nature started in the Southeast in Charleston, South Carolina as she was earning a B.S. in Geology. Shortly after graduating she began working at a Nature Center and leading canoeing, kayaking, biking and birding tours along with classes in the nature center. After moving out to California to work as a naturalist educator teaching environmental education, she continued to be a kayak guide in the summer and winters. The guiding took her to places such as Belize, Panama, San Juan Islands, Wyoming, Baja, Mexico and the Channel Islands. She currently lives in Ventura and continues to teach outdoor education through several different organizations in Southern California along with leading hikes with The Nature Conservancy. Birding is one of her biggest passions and loves to share that with others. Her goal is to spread awareness of the natural environment in order to develop a deeper appreciation and love of the wilderness in hopes of conserving it.
TESSA WOMACK, Lead Field Staff, weaves her understanding of human development, ecological systems, and the power of play to design and facilitate experiential learning opportunities in the field, garden, and classroom. She is a nurturer of nature and lover of language. Her playful approach and adaptable tools invite practices of self- and environmental-inquiry, expression, and balance in an ever-shifting world. She is a Masters student at Antioch University, and is pursuing a Certificate in Ecopsychology through Pacifica Graduate Institute. Tessa has a BA in psychology and education from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has over ten years of experience working with children, teens, and families through local organizations committed to self-awareness and nature connection. Her current paths of service include: Environmental Educator with Food for Thought, Birth Doula with Kindling Connection… and Lead Field Staff with Ventura Wild! Tessa operates with a “systems mentality,” honoring all experiences as invitations to explore relationships within this interwoven reality.
JENNY JACOBS, Lead Field Staff, grew up in west Sonoma County and spent most of her childhood outdoors, running around with chickens and sheep and adventuring in a nearby creek. She studied environmental science and music at UC Santa Cruz, and after taking an entomology class and spending the last quarter of her undergrad degree in a tropical biology course in Costa Rica, she fell in love with tropical biology and speaking Spanish. She spent many years studying tropical insects and biodiversity, obtaining her M.S. and then embarking on a doctoral program. Part-way into a PhD program, she realized that she preferred exploring nature and teaching, rather than studying nature in an academic context. Jenny recently moved back to California with her husband and young children, after living in Michigan for four years where she had the opportunity to develop a parent-child nature exploration class through Ann Arbor public schools. Upon returning to CA, she was so delighted to find Ventura Wild and is super excited to help connect more children and families to nature! She is also very passionate about bringing more nature connection and education programs to local Spanish speaking communities.
ERIK NELSON, Lead Field Staff, was raised in Colorado & Sweden and even as a child was deeply enthralled by the natural world. He built birdhouses, raised tadpoles, and planted gardens while roaming the mountains and forests around his home. He feels privileged to have had such an idyllic childhood, one where he could find moments of self-directed solitude in nature or push himself towards a new adventure. He enjoyed the challenge of becoming an Eagle Scout and likes using the best parts of that experience to enhance his education programs. He has a degree in Anthropology and a certificate in Marine Biology. Professionally he has worked as a naturalist, biologist, and educator for various nonprofits including The Aspen Center for Environmental Studies & the Teton Science School and the National Park Service, among others, where he has worked with thousands of participants of diverse backgrounds and interest.