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Getting outside with Kristin Alexander

By Staff | May 22, 2009

Kristin Alexander Photo by Michael Theis/Chronicle

Luther Burbank, unquestionably the most famous horticulturist who ever lived, once wrote “Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water bugs, tadpoles, frogs, mud turtles, elderberries, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb, brooks to wade in, water lilies, woodchucks, bats, bees, butter flies, various animals to pet, pine combs, hay fields, rocks to roll sand, snakes, huckleberries, and hornets. And, any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of his education.” Of all the words written about Mother Nature and her children, these are Kristin Alexander’s favorites.

Though Luther Burbank died fifty years before Kristin Alexander was born the two are truly kindred spirits. His life was devoted to improving plant life for the purpose of increasing the world’s food supply and make the world a better place. Hers is devoted to introducing a respect for and love of nature to children of all ages and make the world a better place.

Kristin is the executive director of Potomac Valley Audubon Society and as much as she loves her job it does not define her life.

“I blame my parents for the way I feel about the environment.” She said as we sat in the sunny, solar-heated, energy-efficient, straw-bale construction out near the Yankauer Nature Preserve that Kristin and husband Jeff Feldman began planning eight years ago. Their stylish home is nestled on five acres and except for a chicken coop and a big generous vegetable garden, it’s all virgin land. “Actually we’re in Berkley County.” She said. “We couldn’t afford five acres in Shepherdstown.” Kristin laughed at this. She laughs often. She’s a happy womanbeautiful, charming and, as perfectly described as “a breath of fresh air.” Chez Feldman-Alexander is also home to Luke, Zeke, O.C., (short for Obsessive Compulsive,) Obie and Tinkerbelle: a visually formidable security duo and three quirky cats.

Kristin Marianne Alexander grew up on a family farm in the wilds of Ellicott City, Maryland. It was a working farm on thirty three acres where “all kinds of critters” livedchickens for eggs, goats, a couple of cows, sheep, ducks and pets, lots of pets.

Her mother, Marianne, PhD, was a professor of Public Policy at Gaucher College and Dr. Duane, a pediatrician at NIH. Marianne later founded the Public Leadership Education Network in DC.

“Mom and Dad always gave my brother Keith and me positive reinforcement. They encouraged us and supported us, no matter what we were interested in. That’s who they are.” The Alexander family spent a lot of time out of doors, during the week on the farm in Ellicott City and on weekends at their home in Keyser, West Virginia. “It was an old farmhouse and we’d go there and roam the fields, fish and camp out. It was a great life.”

Kristin graduated from Centennial High and then, as was family tradition, went to Penn State.

Despite all the real-life teaching, working with kids, and her outdoorsy life, and despite being offered experiences she would otherwise not have had, she admits, “It wasn’t until I got to Penn that I really got it. I knew what I wanted to do with my life.” She graduated in 1994 with a BA in environmental education.

“I was really fortunate that my parents paid for my education. I didn’t have student loans so I could work for practically nothing when I graduated.” This was definitely a plus if she was going to pursue her chosen course of study. I’ve never met a teacher who’s in it for the money but when you start out owing a small fortune before you get your first job, sometimes you have to rethink your dreams. Kristin was indeed lucky that she didn’t.

During all four years at Penn, Kristin worked at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center as an environmental interpreter. She summered at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies in Colorado designing programs and teaching environmental education. After graduation, and for the next six years, she worked in the Echo Hill Outdoor School in Worton, Maryland; the National Wildlife Federation’s Wildlife Camp in Estes Park, Colorado and Hendersonville, North Carolina, and in The Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Finland, Minnesota always studying and teaching.

From the Fall of ’98 until the Spring of 2000, she was an Aquatic Science Educator at the Under-Water World in Bloomington, MN. Between school and work throughout the ’90s Kristin studied the rainforest at the School for Field Studies in Australia; advanced Spanish at the Intercultural Language School in Costa Rica; outdoor education at the National Outdoor Leadership School in Wyoming and wilderness canoeing at the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School in Maine. In her spare time she entered the graduate program at the University of Minnesota.

Kristin Alexander and Jeff Feldman worked together in the Nature Center at Penn State. “Jeff and I never dated at Penn. He had already graduated when we worked together.” She said. “We used to have lunch, hang out, and talk. We had the same dreams and values. We were definitely not opposites,” she smiled, “We were friends.” A friend like that doesn’t come along everyday so when Jeff relocated to the Twin Cities Kristin decided to give Minnesota a try. Jeff was definitely the draw but the work at Wolf Ridge was, in Kristin’s words, “So cool, I had to do it.” The fresh air of Minnesota cemented the “friendship” and the rest, as they say, is history. Kristin graduated with a Masters in Educational Leadership from Minnesota State in the spring of 2000.

In the fall of 2000 Kristin and Jeff were married at the Alexander farm in Maryland. The weather was perfect and the entire weekend of festivities was held in the great outdoors. The newlyweds then honeymooned in the Blue Ridge Mountains and Cape Breton Island off Nova Scotia.

In 2001 Kristin and Jeff moved to West Virginia, settled in Harpers Ferry and began searching for the little corner of perfection to build the home of their dreams. While

Kristin was teaching at Shepherd College as an adjunct Professor of Environmental Education, she and Jeff went to a meeting at Yankauer Nature Preserve. The Board was looking for a director with environmental education expertise and before the meeting was over Kristin had been discovered and offered the job. During her tenure, The West Virginia Association of Environmental Education was founded and Kristin was one of the founders.

Jeff has headed up his own team-building consulting firm for more than fifteen years. Employee relations today plays a major role in any successful business plan. As a writer, trainer and advisor, Jeff has been ahead of this critical element for a long time. He recently formed Green Path Consulting and added green building consulting and green home audits to his services.

In 2007 Kristin became the Executive Director of the Potomac Valley Audubon Society. As Kristin said “It’s not just about birds.” The Audubon mission is to conserve and restore natural ecosystems. The focus is on birds and other wildlife and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the earth’s biological diversity.

PVAS is a membership organization with a loyal roster and a board of ardent enthusiasts that rely on private donations and grants to make sure the organization continues to thrive and grow. It will come as no surprise that the giving has dropped off over the past nine months, but the executive director said “I’m an eternal optimist. I think we’re in a tough spot economically and environmentally, but humans thrive under pressure and when we’re forced to be creative we succeed.”

PVAS manages the Yankauer Nature Preserve and the Eidolon Nature Preserve (Morgan County) It offers environmental education programs and events for all ages on everything from master naturalists programs, workshops in natural history, photography, birding, scout and school programs and summer camp to music in the cedars and wild flower festivals. The executive directorship is a big job and, fortunately for Shepherdstown and the Potomac Valley, the right person is in it.

The people that Kristin “blames” for all of it, for guiding her on this path and then encouraging her to follow all her dreams, Duane and Marianne Alexander, visit their children often. Keith, who now teaches at Shepherd, and his wife Ava and their two year old son, Felix live on New Street.

Kristin and Jeff built a home of straw-bales and sunshine. They raise chickens and vegetables and compost and recycle down to one trash bag a week. Their average Allegheny bill is $30 a month and there isn’t a service of comfort their home doesn’t offer. Their work reflects their life and is all about education, outreach, and inspirational knowledge about this gorgeous planet in our care. I feel like I’ve seen the future. I sure hope so.

– Sue Kennedy is a former public relations executive and Emmy Award-winning screenplay writer.