Chief Executive Officer
Growing up in the Piney Woods of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Jeanne spent hours watching the frogs and crawdads in the meandering creek behind her family’s home. To this day, sounds of cicada take her back to her joyful childhood — when her dad raised honeybees and her mom sold collard greens grown in their garden to the local grocery store. “I feel I’m from the last generation of kids who grew up outdoors — I lived outdoors.”
With almost two decades of experience in education and conservation, Jeanne joined REAL School Gardens in October 2007, to lead its national expansion. Prior to joining REAL School Gardens, Jeanne spent eight years as vice president and director of the Jane Goodall Institute’s Roots & Shoots program, a global youth service program focused on conservation. In this position, she helped fulfill Dr. Jane Goodall’s dream of creating a powerful force for positive change: a network of young people in communities all around the world empowered to make a difference. Her interest in service-learning began while she was director of Undergraduate Programs for the Department of African American Studies at the University of Maryland.
Jeanne is active in several national and international initiatives to connect children and families to nature and to promote youth leadership in conservation. She has delivered presentations throughout the United States as well as in Tanzania, Russia, Singapore, Malaysia and South Africa.
Jeanne holds an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Maryland and a B.A. in American Studies, Summa Cum Laude, from the University of Southern Mississippi.
Director, Strategic Partnerships & Growth
Growing up outside Kansas City, there was always an adventure awaiting Leigh and her younger sister at their grandparent’s nearby farm. Whether it was fishing in the nearby pond, tracking animals through soybean fields, or catching fireflies on warm summer nights, Leigh has great memories of running wild outdoors on the farm all throughout her childhood.
Prior to joining REAL School Gardens, Leigh worked for Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry Campaign where she built enterprising partnerships with Fortune 500 corporations, associations, and media organizations which fueled the movement to end childhood hunger in America. Before Share Our Strength, Leigh managed key business development and marketing activities for WomenHeart, a national patient advocacy organization dedicated to advancing women’s heart health through public awareness and patient support. Prior to fundraising, Leigh worked in the wine industry in Napa Valley.
For REAL School Gardens, Leigh forges long-term, meaningful partnerships with organizations to scale the impact of REAL School Gardens nationwide. Leigh brings a diverse background in partnership development to her role, having worked across the corporate, government and nonprofit sectors on initiatives that have raised millions of dollars to improve the well-being of children in low-income communities.
Leigh holds a B.A. in History from Middlebury College. She currently lives in Washington D.C. with her husband where they are active in volunteer efforts supporting the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
Vice President – Regional Operations and Impact
For Scott, fishing trips with Granddad “J” at Caddo Lake in East Texas weren’t about fishing. “Looking back, catching fish was secondary,” he recalls. “There was so much to do, just sitting on the banks, looking and listening, trying not to get my line caught behind me when I cast out.” Scott was instead mesmerized by the water ripples and the sound of soft breezes blowing through the trees. “To this day, those memories fill me with a sense of wonder and peace, not to mention an overwhelming sense of love for my granddad.”
Before joining REAL School Gardens to lead its flagship program in Fort Worth, Texas, Scott Feille taught at Westcliff Elementary for eight years. First working with special education classes and then with fifth-graders, he not only became the school’s lead science teacher but also a lead science curriculum writer for the Fort Worth Independent School District Frameworks program. In 2006, he received the Lockheed Martin Teaching Chair of Excellence Award in Elementary Science. Scott holds a B.A. in Philosophy and Political Science, magna cum laude, from Texas Christian University and is a Texas Master Naturalist.
Director, Training & Curriculum Development
Vanessa Ford is a nationally-recognized leader in in STEM education, serving as the Chairperson of the National Center on Teacher Quality’s Teacher Advisory Group and she is a Next Generation Science Standards Curator for the National Science Teachers Association. She works with the DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education Environmental Literacy Leadership Cadre, and is a Collaborative Professional Development Facilitator for D.C. Public Schools.
She is often called upon to share her expertise on panels and at conferences convened by national organizations such as NSTA and Achieve Inc. She has extensive experience in instructional coaching, and has led teacher training initiatives for GW University, Project Lead the Way, Office of the State Superintendent (OSSE), Engineering is Elementary, the National Science Teachers Association, the New Teacher Mentor Program, Teaching in Action, and the Imagine Community Charter Schools.
Beyond training, she also works with school systems and outside organizations to develop elementary school curricula, ensuring cross-school alignment with local and national standards, ease of teacher adoption, accurate and effective implementation, and data-driven measurement.
Most recently, she ran “Think Tank” an inquiry-based learning class at Maury Elementary in Washington, DC that is based in Habits of Mind and Multiple Intelligence theory. When in the “Think Tank,” students explore many STEM concepts and build their problem solving and thinking skills. She also serves as the STEM Coordinator at Maury, facilitating school-wide science and engineering units.
Her professional honors include the IEEE Award for Exceptional Contribution to Pre-University Education, a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching Finalist, attendance to the Honeywell Educator Space Academy, “Highly Effective” teacher District of Columbia Public Schools, and the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching Nominee.
Vanessa earned her M.A. in Teaching from Trinity University, and her B.A. in Psychology from San Francisco State University and Gallaudet University. She is a licensed D.C. elementary school teacher and an alumnus of Teach for America.
Associate, Operations & Growth
Maggie is fascinated with the underlying patterns of language and communication, and majored in Anthropology and minored in Socio-Linguistics and New Media. While in school, she received the Kirkland Endowment Research Award to work with hundreds of refugees from around the world to help them learn to speak and write English. While working with teenaged Thai refugees, she discovered the power of experiential learning, getting the kids excited about practicing English while watching television, listening to music, experiencing pop-culture, and studying art.
Maggie introduced her students to shows such as Glee, and using music and subtitles, not only did they pick up English more quickly, but they also picked up cultural nuances in an interactive, experiential, and fun way.
After graduating, Maggie joined the launch team of a tech start up called Smigin, which develops language learning apps for those traveling to new countries and looking for enough fluency to get by and have a successful visit. She not only helped create and capture the necessary content for the software, but she also oversaw the external marketing and communications around the product, and executed a successful outreach campaign to encourage public libraries to adopt the product.
Before Smigin, Maggie worked with Behind the book, a literacy nonprofit that brings authors and illustrators into public schools to perform educational writing workshops, walking students step-by-step though the process of writing, illustrating, and publishing a book. Maggie also performed extensive event management duties for her school’s Alumni Relations Office, organizing annual alumni art exhibitions and reunion weekends. Maggie received her B.A. from Hamilton College. Long-term, Maggie plans to return to school and become a public school teacher. She hopes her experience with REAL School Gardens will give her a strong experiential foundation to work from.
Vice President of Finance
Claire has always had a passion for education and social justice and has spent her career helping to grow and guide nonprofits that serve low-income communities.
After earning her Master’s, Claire worked with The Steppingstone Foundation, which prepares low-income students for success in school and college. Under her guidance, the foundation saw a drastic increase in applications, increasing enrollment to create their largest class ever.
She spent a year with CityYear as a Regional Development Director, successfully growing the region’s budget from $3M – $4M.
Most recently, she led a community-based health center that worked with immigrant communities in poverty. There she oversaw the expansion of the organization from two to six locations in D.C. and Maryland. She also tripled the organization’s earned-income.
While pursuing her career, Claire has volunteered as Treasurer of the DC Primary Care Association, which awarded her an Unsung Hero Award as the Chief Financial Officer of La Clinica del Pueblo. Claire also was a two-time award winner for her involvement as an Alumna of Boston University.
With a scholarship to Boston University, Claire earned Master’s in Business Administration with a Graduate Certificate in nonprofit management. She also holds a Bachelors’ degree in Spanish Literature with a minor in Philosophy from the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Director, Corporate Partnerships
Daniel’s family has lived in Fort Worth’s West Meadowbrook neighborhood for six generations. Just steps away from the Tandy Hills Nature Preserve, Daniel’s father and grandfather roamed the woods there, and even managed to go sledding there once during a rare North Texas winter snow.
Today, Daniel’s home backs up to the preserve, and it’s there he follows in his father’s footsteps (literally) while he enjoys hiking through the hills with his family. Daniel joined REAL School Gardens in 2014 with 15 years of fundraising experience. With an emphasis on working with the business community, he has built partnerships with a variety of industries to help their employees get to work as volunteers in schools and communities. Prior to fundraising, Daniel was a classroom teacher, where he began his commitment to educating and empowering young people. He holds a B.A. in English from the University of Texas at Arlington.
Director, Marketing & Communications
Growing up by the Severn River in Maryland, there was always plenty for Alison Risso to do outside. In addition to swimming and crabbing, there were woods to explore and even pits of clay to dig in. Alison had always loved science too, but never thought about the connection between the outdoors and science education until her own children went to school.
In 2009, Alison Risso took her daughter to kindergarten orientation at her local elementary school. She met her daughter’s teacher and principal, and then noticed the courtyard just outside the classroom window. It was a bit of waste of space, full of hard-packed fill-dirt from when the school was constructed, and a handful of weeds. Thinking out loud, she commented, “We should make that courtyard into a garden,” and then took on the project. In the end, working with donors, parents and teachers, the garden became a useful and beautiful outdoor classroom. Now dubbed the Science Courtyard, the garden attracts as many teachers and students as it does birds and bugs.
When working inside, Alison has spent the last 20 years handling communications and marketing for non-fiction television networks such as Discovery Channel, TLC, and Animal Planet, nonprofit organization KaBOOM!, which builds playgrounds in low-income schools.
Carolinas Regional Office
Regional Executive Director
Before joining REAL School Gardens, Edna established the Green Teacher Network, a nonprofit that engaged more than 200 schools in schoolyard gardening connected to nutrition education in Charlotte, North Carolina. Green Teacher Network merged with REAL School Gardens in June 2016. Edna has 20 years of experience in commercial real estate and economic development. She holds the prized national CCIM designation awarded for her experience in property analysis.
Edna has supported many environmental and education initiatives, chairing the Mountain Island Lake Marine Commission and the WTVI (Public Television) Boards in Charlotte. She also served as an elected Mecklenburg County Commissioner for four years.
Her passion is to understand and support sustainable community initiatives with a specific interest in how to transform economically disadvantaged areas through schoolyard gardening. Edna has a degree in business from University of North Carolina. She’s married to John Huber, and has three children, Emily, Will, and Nick.
Growing up in the Tidewater area of Virginia, Suzanne spent hours exploring the woods and creek that held the delights of wildflowers, frogs and toads and a wide variety of bird species. Her father was a bee keeper. Her mother and grandmother taught her to observe nature and tend a garden. This passion transferred to her teaching practice. As a Science Lab teacher at a PreK-8 school, Suzanne often incorporates gardening and outdoor learning into her science lessons.
Suzanne is a 31 year veteran teacher who spent most of that time teaching at Title I schools. She holds multiple certifications including Elementary Grades K-6, Middle Grades Science, Social Studies and Language Arts and has her National Board Certification. After earning a Master’s Degree from the University of North Carolina, she added a certification in Curriculum and Supervision and enjoys coaching other teachers. She was selected by North Carolina Science Teachers Association as Teacher of the Year for District 6 in 2015-2016. As the Carolinas’ Region’s first Instructional Coach, Suzanne is sharing her teaching skills with all our partner schools in the area.
Regional Development Director
Alec began his career in education with Teach For America as a 2007 Charlotte corps member and spent a total of seven years in Title I high school classrooms across the state. During that time, he also served as a Durham Teaching Fellow at his alma mater, Duke, and received his Master’s in Teaching while serving as a Curriculum Specialist for TFA’s summer institutes in the Mississippi Delta and Tulsa, Oklahoma. In 2012, Alec returned to Charlotte to help found Project L.I.F.T. Academy to help off-track seniors catch up and graduate on time with their peers.
Since 2015, Alec has continued to work for educational equity as a Regional Development Strategist with Kiwanis International, and Deputy Director of NorthCarolinaCAN, where he successfully advocated for equity-focused reforms at the state and local level. He remains heavily involved in Kiwanis as a member and Trustee for the Carolinas District.
He now lives in Charlotte with his fiancée, Mia, and adopted dog Mungo, where they all enjoy rooting for their two favorite teams: Duke, and whoever is playing against UNC.
Mid-Atlantic Regional Office
Regional Executive Director
Roaming through rows of cornfields as a child, April discovered early the freedom that being outside could bring a growing, inquisitive young mind. Growing up in a small Alabama town close to her family farm, the outdoors was a playing field that provided endless hours of exploration and adventures. Watching her grandfather cultivate rows of peanuts, peas, and other various crops from his prized John Deere tractor, she got the opportunity to learn through hands-on work, the life cycle of a food sources and how food grows and goes from seed to table. Although DC is now home, she still finds time to get lost in the woods and stumble into new adventures.
Throughout her 10 year career in Washington, D.C., April has successfully combined her project leadership skills with her passion for projects that improve the education, health, environmental awareness and STEM opportunities for local children in under-resourced communities. Forming partnerships with government agencies, foundations, schools, and peer organizations, she instituted multiple programs that have impacted thousands of children.
Before joining REAL School Gardens, April served as the Director for Washington Youth Garden, where she managed the fundraising and development operations as well provided guidance to program development and implementation.
While working for Living Classrooms, April managed environmental education programs that provided hands-on educational services to over 10,000 students a year.
For Martha’s Table, a nonprofit that provides low-income, low-resourced communities with the resources and supports needed to help break the cycle of poverty, April facilitated the Children’s Department, which provides year-round in-school and out-of-school programming for families throughout the city.
April sits on the board of DC EcoWomen as Vice President of Membership and Outreach and was a Chesapeake Regional Fellow for the Environmental Leadership Program.
April D. Martin earned her BA in International Business from Notre Dame of Maryland University. After working in the financial sector she entered graduate school at Johns Hopkins University where she received a Master’s of Liberal Arts. She later served as an instructor of African and African American History for Harvard University.
Project Manager, Garden Design & Build
Growing up in West Chester, PA, Evan spent most of his childhood outside exploring. Whether fishing at the local creek with his brother, playing sports with the neighborhood kids, or camping with the Boy Scouts, Evan tried to spend all of his free time outside. As Evan grew up, his parents were very influential and helped shape his career path. His father was (and still is) an avid gardener who dedicated his entire career to a national non-profit organization.
Evan’s mother was a middle school teacher who brought her energy and enthusiasm to the classroom, everyday. Evan received his Bachelor of Landscape Architecture from Pennsylvania State University. He also studied Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, where he was able to take his outdoor exploration to the next level in one of the most beautiful counties on earth. Prior to REAL School Gardens, Evan worked at an engineering firm on a number of large environmental and construction projects, including several for Fortune 500 companies. More recently, he designed estate gardens, green roof spaces, and parks for a landscape architecture firm in Bethesda, MD. He has experience in landscape design, native plant and habitat gardens, and construction management. In 2011, Evan also had the opportunity to serve the community through his work in a planning and design studio which benefited an underprivileged neighborhood in Pittsburgh, PA. This project was awarded an Honor Award by the PA/DE Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects. During his free time, Evan enjoys fly-fishing, tennis, playing the drums, and snowboarding.
Joe’s parents didn’t really garden much, but as a child, Joe once spit out watermelon seeds and watched in fascination as a new plant, complete with new watermelons, grew right in his backyard. From then on, he was a gardener.Joe has spent years combining his love for gardening with his love for teaching. He served as the founder and faculty advisor for Maury Elementary School’s outdoor learning lab and the garden club. He also taught beginner and intermediate gardening courses to adults as the sole educator for the Neighborhood Farm Initiative in DC. He also led a variety of different workshops to help connect low-income children with the benefits of gardens. Joe has worked with the Maryland Master Gardeners, and helped co-found the largest education garden in D.C. at Walker-Jones Education Campus.
Joe brings with him seven years of teaching experience as a Special Education instructor at high-poverty, inner-city DC schools. Under his watch as the school’s garden lab coordinator, students have improved their understanding of nutrition, increased their desire to spend active time outside, and gained knowledge of school content through hands-on learning experiences. Joe has been honored as a “Highly Effective” teacher in D.C.’s teacher evaluation program and has achieved the status of a “distinguished” teacher, is exceptionally experienced with special needs education, common-core curriculum, next generation science standards, and is a level 1 certified Wilson Language Instructor.
Outside of school, Joe runs a personal ½ acre garden farm which is used as a certification site for a local Permaculture Design Certification course. He also founded and runs a local gardening cooperative called the Hyattsville Urban Growers.
Joe received his BA in Philosophy from University of North Carolina at Asheville, and earned his Master’s in Early Childhood Development/ Early Education/ Special Education from George Washington University.
Luisa Aviles grew up in a big city (Caracas, Venezuela), and though she enjoyed all the museums, aquariums, and attractions of city life, Luisa was always drawn to the natural world. Before becoming a teacher, Luisa worked in the food and airlines businesses and holds a Bachelor degree in Business Administration and a Master’s degree in Special Education.
Luisa first encountered REAL School Gardens when she was the co-chair for the Junior Master Gardener Club for L.K. Hall Elementary. She brings with her nine years of teaching experience in North Texas elementary schools. Last school year, Luisa ran a project-based-learning module centered on the school’s garden, and has plenty of experience to share with the teachers she trains.
Southeast Regional Office
Southeast Regional Executive Director
Before she was tapped to lead REAL School Gardens’ expansion into Atlanta, Suzannah Koilpillai successfully grew local home and garden companies and expanded their partnership offerings. After beginning in outside sales, she moved up the ranks, quadrupling sales as a key account manager and then increasing existing sales by 60% as sales manager. She then joined an Atlanta based retail/wholesale company as VP of Sales. There, she built and led a strong team that created new types of partnerships, growing B2B business by 50%, and transforming the company from a local independent store to a national brand, serving the hospitality, landscape, and design industries throughout the US.
While Suzannah’s career focused on helping people create welcoming environments indoors and out, outside of work she became increasingly focused on education and nutrition. Married to a life-long educator, Suzannah understands how hard teachers and administrators work to keep children inspired and excited in school. And with two young sons, her personal focus on their nutrition led her to spend years volunteering for nonprofits that help all kids access to healthy foods.
Suzannah’s move to REAL School Gardens combines her sales, partnership, and leadership skills with her passion for helping children lead better lives by improving their health and education.
Suzannah has a B.A. in English from Boston College.
Texas Regional Office
Texas Regional Executive Director
Before taking on the role of Texas Regional Executive Director for REAL School Gardens, Mary Freeman combined her skills in marketing and fundraising to help lift some of Dallas’ top nonprofits to new heights.
Mary took a very different path into nonprofit leadership than many of her peers. She went back to finish college in her 30s, and earned both her college degree and her masters over the course of more than 12 years while working full-time and raising a family.
While earning her first degree, Mary followed in her parents’ and grandparents’ footsteps, and began her nonprofit career with The Salvation Army, scaling and streamlining the local chapter to grow the organizational revenue from $17M to $30M in just five years. As part of that successful regional restructuring, she also helped create the now famous brand promise “Doing the Most Good.”
Mary then moved to Habitat for Humanity, where she created a series of volunteer and donor engagement programs that increased both the organization’s annual revenue and its influence in the community. Out of 1,500 affiliates across the United States, the Dallas Area has now been named the “Affiliate of the Year” for two years in a row.
Continuing her work in low-income communities, Mary joined Reading Partners, a nonprofit that provides reading tutors to schools. By diversifying financial and volunteer pipelines and expanding both the organization’s program offerings and regional partnerships, Mary was able to increase their reach to serve more than 2,100 struggling readers across North Texas. Now, working with REAL School Gardens will enable Mary to expand her impact throughout the school day, by providing engaging lessons in Math and Science in addition to Language Arts.
Mary earned her Master of Business Administration in Nonprofit Management from University of Dallas and her Bachelor of Business Administration in Marketing as an Armentrout Scholar at Southern Methodist University, both cum laude. Outside of school and work, Mary is a Certified Fundraising Executive, a member of the Dallas Business Club, President of the Association of Fundraising Professionals Greater Dallas Chapter, and has served as a Planning and Zoning Commissioner for the City of Mesquite. She is married and the proud mother of two adult children and one grandchild.
Wendy grew up helping her parents grow fresh vegetables and fruit and then spent years working and traveling through South and Central America, Europe, and Australia, finally settling in Dallas, where she worked for AmeriCorps as a reading interventionist.
She then taught 5th grade at J.T. Saldivar Elementary as a Master science teacher. After ten years in the classroom, she worked as a curriculum specialist for DISD’s Science Department and served as a campus-based instructional coach at M.B. Henderson and David G. Burnet Elementary. Wendy is excited to help connect more children and teachers to the natural world as an instructional coach for REAL School Garden. She holds a B.A. in Education from San Diego State University and is currently working on a Master’s Degree in Teaching and Learning from Marygrove College.
Senior Project Manager, Garden Design & Build
Summer time meant leaving the city behind for a few weeks and heading to Granny’s place amongst the endless prairies and cotton fields of rural West Texas. The day was full of climbing in the loft of the barn, gathering eggs from the chicken coop, shelling black-eyed peas, and running from Charlie the rooster, “King of the Farm”. Being at Granny’s meant exploring outside from the moment Charlie crowed till soft sounds of crickets filled the night sky.
Joining REAL School Gardens was a perfect fit for Lannie. Professional experience at the SWA Group, City of Fort Worth Park and Recreation Planning Department, adjunct professor at the University of Texas at Arlington as well as being actively involved with her children’s schools and PTAs have prepared her for the role of Senior Project Manager. Lannie holds a Bachelor and Master’s in Landscape Architecture from the University of Texas at Arlington and is a registered Landscape Architect.
Heather Quinn Gage
Heather has worked for years with nonprofits to improve communities through education, nonprofit capacity building, and the arts. While earning her degree in Nonprofit Management at University of North Texas, Heather mentored low-income students through financial aid and college admissions processes.
Christie Washington has spent her life helping those in need. Her mother spent 20 years as a HeadStart teacher and Christie started volunteering with her early and often, helping disadvantaged children enter kindergarten ready and excited to learn. She continued to focus on both academics and volunteering throughout high-school, which ended up earning her not one, but two prestigious merit scholarships to Texas Christian University.
From there, she attended the University of Texas School of Law, and then received the opportunity to become a Congressional Intern. Working in Washington D.C., she was able to combine her passion for helping kids in low-income communities with her legal and governmental knowledge.
Christie holds a B.A. in Political Science from Texas Christian University and an active member of Delta Sigma Theta.
Erin grew up in Denton, Texas, on the northern border of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. As a child, she remembers spending hours riding her bike in her neighborhood and playing in the woods at the end of her street. Erin spent much of her childhood outside – whether playing sports, helping her parents in the yard, or exploring the woods and parks around her home – and she developed a strong appreciation of nature and our interactions with our environment.
REAL School Gardens connects three of Erin’s passions: Education, the environment, and nonprofit development. Prior to joining the REAL School Gardens team, Erin worked at several other DFW area nonprofit organizations including Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity and The Women’s Center of Tarrant County. She has a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in public administration, both from Texas A&M University in College Station.
Sammy grew up in urban Oklahoma, joined the military, and traveled the world. When he returned to the U.S., Sammy dedicated himself to giving children experiential lessons through teaching in the garden and bringing the classroom outdoors, or sometimes bringing the outdoors in.
Before joining REAL School Gardens, Sammy taught in Grand Prairie for 18 years. He also wrote science curriculum for the district and provided professional development with a concentration on utilizing the outdoors to enhance instruction. He has helped to install two such outdoor classrooms at Sally Moore Elementary and Robert E. Lee. Sammy won the Sadie Ray Graff Award for exceptional work in environmental education. He enjoys square foot gardening at home and traveling with his family.