Nature’s Heroes 2019

At Avalonia Land Conservancy’s annual meeting on July 25th, two retiring board members, Maureen Dewire and Margaret Gibson (pictured with Dennis Main, President) were recognized for their many years of service. Five others were recognized for their positive impact on the organization and their outstanding volunteer effort with a presentation of Avalonia’s 2019 Nature’s Heroes Awards.


Joellen Anderson has been described as one of Avalonia’s preeminent and longest serving volunteers. Jo has been a member for over 25 years, leading hikes, contributing to events, stewarding the trails, advocating for the education of children and adults, and keeping us all on our toes by holding us accountable to high standards of care for our preserves. Long before the formation of individual town committees, Joellen worked across town lines, and though she lives in and focuses on Groton preserves, she still enjoys knowing what’s happening in other towns.
Conservation education is her passion. She has connected with many people in various fields over the years and effectively put those connections to work. Joellen has organized, sponsored and financed myriad educational and informational programs, ensuring Avalonia’s name is front and center. Detail- oriented and mission-focused, Joellen has helped the present records team organize and update Avalonia’s records and files by setting up spreadsheets and filing systems. Her dedication to preserving Avalonia’s historical record has been of vital importance as well. (Photo, left to right, Ann Nalwalk, award presenter, Joellen Anderson and Chuck Toal, Director of Development and Programs for Avalonia.)


StoneRidge Volunteers – Over 30 StoneRidge residents hand addressed 2,400 envelopes that were mailed to close neighbors of Avalonia’s preserves asking them to become members. Fifty-five new members joined as a result of this project. Another 400 letters were hand-addressed and mailed to lapsed members, requesting that they renew their memberships. This project convinced 80 lapsed members to renew. This award is being presented to Wendi Colvin, coordinator of StoneRidge’s in-house events and programming, on behalf of all the StoneRidge volunteers who contributed to this remarkably successful appeal. Read more about their project (Photo, left to right, Wendi Colvin and Chuck Toal, award presenter.)


MaryEllen Mateleska is a member of the Stonington Town Committee. Despite her hectic and full work schedule as the director of Education and Conservation at the Mystic Aquarium, she makes it to most meetings and always seems to have some wonderful connection to report. While much of what MaryEllen does with education and grants is related to her job, she manages to keep Avalonia at the top of her list. She has tirelessly stewarded Dodge Paddock, one of our highest profile properties in Stonington. She secured a significant National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant for restoration of this property, not only administering the grant, but literally digging and planting in the worst of conditions, and then educating others about it. Avalonia’s connections with MaryEllen and the Aquarium have been critical in moving the restoration efforts along. She monitors several properties for amphibians and is a devoted advocate for the environment in everything she does. (Photo, left to right, MaryEllen Mataleska and Beth Sullivan, award presenter.)


Laurie Gorham lives next to the Barrett Preserve in Ledyard and has enjoyed walking the property for many years. She joined Avalonia via the Ledyard Town Committee in 2017 to participate more actively in managing Barrett. She does trail maintenance work, boundary walks, and recently joined a work party to remove invasive plants and regularly monitors a field of milkweed. In addition, Laurie volunteered at a critical moment to write an Open Space and Watershed Land Acquisition grant to assist Avalonia acquire a new property, 46 Avery Hill Road, in Ledyard. The highlight of Laurie’s Avalonia experience so far has been as an “active participant in retaining these essential properties – for our own health, the health of the planet, the wildlife. I’m so happy to be a part of protecting these spaces.” (Photo, left to right, Laurie Gorham and Karen Askins, award presenter.)


Jonna Chokas’ contributions to Avalonia, which draw on her graphic design skills and broad and deep experience in marketing, communications, events, and advertising, have been transformational. Her first Avalonia project was to launch a fundraiser for Avalonia at LaGrua in Stonington, and she jumped right in. Jonna designed the event invitations, lined up vendors and drummed up sponsors. She has also designed brochures, cards, and other marketing communications over the years. Most recently and significantly, a Communications Committee ad-hoc subcommittee invited her to join a long-floundering and somewhat controversial effort to update the 50-year-old logo. Fully understanding the complexities and challenges of this “rebranding” effort, Jonna took the reins, designed multiple options for the committee, and then diligently walked ComCom and finally the board through a year-long process which resulted in a bright, catchy, contemporary new look. This enormous contribution has enabled Avalonia to catch up to 21st-century digital marketing and communications. Working with Beth Sullivan, Jonna assisted in the creation of Avalonia’s Hike and Seek’s brochure design for an innovative and fun way for kids and families to learn about nature while enjoying our preserves. Jonna says she is particularly energized when she has her Zen time in the woods; she calls it “forest bathing.” She values her fellow volunteers, saying, “Avalonia and the land have done so much for me… I derive as much out of it as I give, and I am happy to help.” (Photo, from left to right, Eugenia Villagra, award presenter, Jonna Chokas, Chuck Toal)

Photos courtesy of Rick Newton