Environmental organization sees new leadership, expands programs

By Katie Demeria

WOODSTOCK — As Friends of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River prepares for new leadership, former Executive Director Leslie Mitchell says she steps down at a time when the organization’s impact on the community is at its highest.

Mitchell has served as executive director since 2004, and is now planning to explore other options. Though she said she has enjoyed seeing the organization grow under her leadership, the executive director position is administratively heavy — she is hoping to pursue something more hands-on.

“Executive directors of nonprofits don’t usually set out to be executive directors,” she said.

Valley native John Eckman will replace Mitchell. Eckman has a thorough background in environmental advocacy, she said.

The organization has seen immense growth over the past 10 years. Mitchell said, for a long time, Friends of the North Fork worked from donation to donation.

“We’re at a point, now, where we can think about expanding staff and expanding the organization as a whole,” she said.

One of the most recent efforts the organization has made is partnering with the Interstate Commission of the Potomac River Basin to assess and monitor algae conditions in the Shenandoah River.

Algae can have a serious impact on the condition of the river and its streams. Many volunteers have experience with this type of monitoring, and they will now use those skills to assess the water’s health.

The education program has particularly grown over recent years, Mitchell said, and this summer it will expand even further.

The group offers North Fork Exploration workshops to local teachers so they can learn about the river and pass that information along to their students.

This year, they are partnering with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to bring the teachers to the bay and kayak to the foundation’s educational facility.

Barbara German teaches at Turner Ashby High School in Rockingham County. She teaches special education, co-teaching biology and earth science classes — she said the program has been invaluable in what she can offer her students.

“I’ve learned a great deal, and it fits in so nicely because many of the students in this area live on farms, and what they do on their farms impacts the quality of the Shenandoah River, so it’s really important that they learn what they do here impacts water in other places as well,” German said.

Friends of the North Fork is planning on offering that education directly to local students, as well. They are hosting workshops in July that will teach them about conservation efforts as well as allow them to participate in river activities like canoeing and fishing.

This year they are introducing a new workshop for students in first, second or third grades. Usually the programs are designed for those in grades six through 12 — the new workshop will teach younger kids about activities like worm composting systems and recycling.

“They’re really excited for it,” Mitchell said. “They’re going to have the youngsters do a watershed play and all kinds of fun water related activities.”

To learn more about the summer programs, visit the Friends of the North Fork’s website at www.fnfsr.org.

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com