A number of area nonprofits have started the year off with new leadership at the helm. We sat down with these freshly appointed executive directors to learn who they are, what experience and ambitions possess, and what we can expect from them and their organizations going forward.
David Drier – Pedal the Cause
David Drier, a St. Louis native, used to spend much of his time traveling because a year and a half studying in Tokyo sparked his curiosity in the wider world.
These days, he travels around St. Louis atop a bike to try and find comfort after a tragedy.
After more than three decades in the global travel and cruise industry, Drier in February became executive director of Pedal the Cause, a nonprofit that organizes an annual bike ride to fundraise for cancer research. He succeeds Jay Indovino, who spent a decade as executive director.
Drier made the switch because, “I’m at a place in my life where, personally and professionally and from my heart, this aligned.”
Drier had for more than a decade led Team Victoria in the annual bike event in honor of his daughter, who was battling cancer. Victoria Drier was 16 when doctors discovered a malignant brain tumor, but she managed to survive for 12 more years and work at The Moog Center for Deaf Education. She died in December 2018.
“As a parent, you think you’re always going to be the one teaching your children — they are the recipients of that — but in this case, I learned so much from Victoria,” said Drier, who also has two sons.
After forming Team Victoria in 2010, Drier and his fellow riders raised thousands of dollars each year, including more than $25,000 for each of the last three rides. In 2019, the Pedal the Cause raised $4.7 million for cancer research at Siteman Cancer Center and Siteman Kids at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
The 2020 ride takes place September 26 and Sept. 27 and, as usual, starts at the Chesterfield Amphitheater. In the past, more than 4,000 riders completed courses of various lengths on Sunday, but this year, the organization is adding rides for Saturday.
With the number of riders continually increasing, Drier said the organization sought to spread those numbers over two days. Also, in response to the increasing popularity of gravel bike riding, the Saturday rides will be largely on gravel.
“It will be interesting to see how many want to do both, how many new people it brings, and how many current riders decide to switch,” said Drier.
The organization is also planning a new event called Spin the Cause on May 2, featuring four hour-long spin sessions at the CycleBar in Creve Coeur. Riders can either fundraise on a spinning session alone or add their miles to the main ride in September.
The goal of all of it is to “find cures or ways to manage cancer diagnoses almost as a chronic illness, so these various forms of cancer don’t just continue to take way too many lives,” Drier said.
“My daughter Victoria is with me every day as I walk through the doors of Pedal, which is a wonderful feeling and gives me a lot of comfort,” Drier said. “I know she is smiling down and saying, ‘Go, Dad, go.’”
Meridith McAvoy Perkins – Forest ReLeaf of Missouri
Growing up, Meridith McAvoy Perkins developed a love of nature and trees despite the fact that her immediate surroundings were the urban environs of St. Louis.
“I always felt really at home in the St. Louis parks” and liked to climb trees “but never really had a formal education around how to engage,” said McAvoy Perkins, 41.
So, McAvoy Perkins decided to study forestry at the University of Missouri-Columbia and then headed west to get closer to the mountains. She took a forestry job with the Department of Natural Resources in Salt Lake City.
Despite her love of the western landscape, after a decade in Utah, McAvoy Perkins and her husband were drawn back to their hometown, their families, and the trees she grew up climbing.
McAvoy Perkins started in September as the new executive director of Forest ReLeaf of Missouri, a nonprofit tree nursery that aims to restore and sustain urban forests. She took the position amidst growing concern about the impact of climate change and the lack of trees in urban areas creating a “heat island” effect.
“As the climate warms, we are seeing our cities being some of the most vulnerable places for people,” because of unusually high temperatures, said McAvoy Perkins.
The organization, which is based south of Tower Grove Park, is working to grow a healthy tree canopy with quality native trees and by “engaging people with nature, making sure that people understand why these trees are important and should be part of the urban landscape,” McAvoy Perkins said.
Her recent move is a return home in more ways than one. Around 1996, just a few years after a group of St. Louis area residents started Forest ReLeaf to increase biodiversity and improve urban tree canopies, McAvoy Perkins, then in high school, became a volunteer and would stuff envelopes in the office.
“They have been near and dear to my heart my whole life, and it was an opportunity to take skill sets that I have developed over the course of my career and put them into practice and connect other people with nature in an urban setting,” she said.
Forest ReLeaf is not alone in trying to help people understand the importance of trees to public health and in addressing climate change. The University of Louisville, the National Institutes of Health, and The Nature Conservancy recently launched a $15 million research project to look at how trees and green spaces affect residents’ health in the city, which between 2004 and 2012 lost an average of 54,000 trees a year to development, storms, pests, and old age.
In St. Louis, the climate is such that “trees will just grow if you give them the right opportunities, so we have that going for us. The downside is we have a lot of sprawl, so we are losing a lot of tree canopy and forested acreage to new development every year,” McAvoy Perkins said.
The city has also had to deal with the emerald ash borer, an invasive species that has reduced the number of ash trees in the city from 15,000 in 2010 to 8,000 earlier this year, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
In response to the loss of trees, Forest ReLeaf is prioritizing planting trees in low-income areas that have less green space, and in areas affected by natural disasters or the ash borer and using native trees and shrubs to restore riparian areas that have become inundated with invasive honeysuckle.
The organization also plans to add more community planting projects with neighborhood associations and volunteer groups and to expand its one-week tree camp, where participants learn about tree biology and identification. The central goal of the various initiatives is education.
“When we talk to people, they say, ‘Oh, I love trees.’ Or, ‘That’s a nice thing,’” McAvoy Perkins said. “But I think what is becoming more apparent in the science and the research is that trees are a critical component of our communities and that we are moving from it being a nicety to have a tree in your landscape to a necessity.”
Cindy Mense – Trailnet
Cindy Mense is a registered dietician whose job doesn’t have much to do with diet. But she is still interested in public health — except she deals with bicycles and roads rather than fruits and vegetables.
After 12 years in various positions at Trailnet, an organization that aims to make walking, biking, and using public transit part of people’s everyday lives, Mense became CEO in June.
Given her background in public health, Mense said her approach is that “the community is your patient — you are trying to help your patient be healthier.”
Mense received the promotion at a time of significant challenge for groups like Trailnet that aim to get more people out of their cars. While the number of people who commute to work with a bicycle over the last decade has mostly remained stagnant locally and nationally, according to estimates from Trailnet and U.S. Census Bureau, and while the number of traffic fatalities generally has decreased over the last two decades, more bicyclists and pedestrians were killed in crashes in 2018 than in any year since 1990, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“At Trailnet, we are on the challenge. We’ll stand up for the policies that make [the roads] safer” for bicyclists and walkers “and we’re going to advocate for the infrastructure that we think is most important to do that,” said Mense.
That includes tackling distracted driving. Missouri is one of only two states that hasn’t banned texting while driving for all drivers, according to the Governors Highway Safety Administration. (The state has a law against drivers under the age of 21 texting while driving.)
Trailnet is now part of a coalition, Missourians for Responsible Transportation, working to find a lawmaker to sponsor legislation for such a ban.
Mense describe distracted driving as “one of our biggest challenges.”
The organization is also working to expand its protected bike lane network throughout the city, which only has one such lane along parts of Chestnut Street downtown and to implement “traffic calming” measures, meaning changes to street alignment and installation of barriers to slow traffic. The calming project is in the engineering phase, and the organization hopes to implement it later this year.
The central idea is that “you can engineer more safety into our streets,” said Mense.
Trailnet’s efforts are not, however, limited to making roads safer. The organization first formed to promote a bicycle and walking trail along the St. Louis riverfront but now also holds community rides throughout the year and facilitates bicycle education for children, and classes for adults interested in using cycling for transportation.
Mense would like to do more education and advocacy via the group rides and to make people think more about the role motorists play in make roads safer.
“I’m working on: How do we take all the excitement and all the people that love the work of Trailnet and translate that into people that understand that a motorist plays a role in making the streets safer for everyone? That innocent I’m going to check that text really quick, I’m going to take that call while driving, together they play a role in making the streets safer,” Mense said. “It isn’t just some bad guy who is driving fast and recklessly; you can be reckless in a very small way.”
Ralph Pfremmer – Magnificent Missouri
Magnificent Missouri and the Missouri River have something in common: They are bigger than they used to be.
As states such as Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri received record amounts of rainfall this year, the river spent 279 days at flood stage in the Army Corps of Engineers Kansas City district, also a record, according to the Associated Press.
While scientists project that such floods will become more common because of climate change, Magnificent Missouri, a nonprofit formed in 2012, is working to conserve the 100 miles of the Missouri River Valley around St. Louis.
The organization, seeking to increase its advocacy efforts, in June hired its first executive director, Ralph Pfremmer, the former executive director of Trailnet.
“We are taking it up a notch,” said Pfremmer, who spent five years at his previous position. “We look at commerce and conservation issues. Our end game is to conserve land and keep it from the wrong type of development.”
Founded by the owners of Bethlehem Valley Farm & Vineyards and Bowood Farms, located along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, respectively, the organization is now focused on ensuring that no new levees are constructed along the Missouri River.
In Maryland Heights, developers, city officials, and residents want to create a $151 million tax increment finance district to build levees and pumps to facilitate what they project as more than $1 billion in development along the river. Pfremmer and others worry that the construction of new levees will worsen flooding elsewhere.
“That’s the use of public funds to build levees to build economic development in a floodplain and is just the most ridiculous thing we’ve ever seen, pushing water into St. Charles city,” said Pfremmer.
In addition to lobbying against such projects, Pfremmer said much of his time is spent on “creating perspectives, highlighting the assets, people and businesses” along the river as “a very special, genuine, authentic place to be that is only an hour away from St. Louis.”
The organization is also planning a celebration in April for the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Katy Trail, which runs along the river. The event will take place at the giant Burr Oak Tree near the trail outside of Columbia, Missouri. Participants will graft part of the tree into seedlings and then plant them elsewhere as a symbol of the perseverance of the tree and the founders of the Katy Trail, Ted and Pat Jones.
“Ultimately, we want to get the political will” behind land conservation “in order to make it more of a money-maker for tourism” as well as “commerce and conservation,” said Pfremmer.
As to what interested him in the new position, Pfremmer traces it to the same experiences that brought him to Trailnet. He grew up near Columbia and first developed a love for bicycling while riding near the Missouri River.
“I have had an affinity for the [Missouri River] corridor since I was born and I got to know intimately the towns, the people, the trees, the culture. [The job] kind of found me,” Pfremmer said. “That’s the way life goes sometimes. To be able do what I do for a living, I have to sometimes pinch myself and say, ‘How did this happen?’ because it’s very rewarding work.”
Dave Simmons – Ride Illinois
It may not be as easy as riding a bike, but Dave Simmons feels comfortable switching from a career in educational publishing and assessment to leading an organization that promotes non-motorized transportation.
Simmons spent 25 years working for publishing companies like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt before becoming executive director of Ride Illinois in October 2019.
“It’s fun and exciting to come from an industry that I did alright in but didn’t have much passion for,” said Simmons.
About a decade before he joined the nonprofit, which is based in the Chicago suburb Elk Grove, Simmons became a cycling instructor certified by the League of American Bicyclists and taught classes aimed at helping people ride comfortably and safely in traffic. He also started an advocacy group in Elk Grove to try and make the area more bike friendly.
“I realized this was something I really enjoyed but didn’t think it was possible to do full time,” said Simmons.
Through his work in the cycling community, Simmons met Ed Barsotti, the executive director of Ride Illinois. Last year, Simmons learned that Barsotti was stepping down after two decades with the organization.
“It was too good to pass up and, fortunately, everything worked out in my favor,” said Simmons.
He is passionate about cycling because of the benefits he sees in it: It’s a way to combat obesity. It improves air quality when people bike rather than drive for transportation. It can build community. And he said he enjoys the process of encouraging and teaching people to ride in situations where they might not have previously felt comfortable.
“It’s just really rewarding and fulfilling to see the light bulb go off,” he said.
The organization stages the Grand Illinois Bike Tour each year, a weeklong trip throughout Illinois during which riders average about 50 miles each day. The organization also operates Bikesafetyquiz.com, an online quiz for children, adult cyclists, drivers, and truckers with the goal of creating safer interactions between cyclists and drivers and reducing crashes.
“My immediate focus is going to be to promote that free resource as much as we can, whether it’s schools or businesses or individuals. You really want to get people educated so they can make their own decisions and realize that maybe biking isn’t as hard as you might hear or as dangerous as you might read in the paper,” said Simmons, who is working to translate the quiz into Spanish.
Simmons steps into the position as deadly crashes involving pedestrians and cyclists are a growing cause for concern. More bicyclists and pedestrians were killed in crashes in 2018 than in any year since 1990, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
After a 37-year-old female cyclist died in November after a crash with a dump track in Chicago, Simmons reached out to trucking associations to encourage them to promote the safety quiz to drivers.
“We hate to be reactive, but this [crash] has happened and the way it happened could be prevented — from both the cyclist and truck driver’s standpoint. We have this quiz, how do we get this to that audience?” Simmons said. “There are only so many hours in the day, and if nothing else, we can try to prevent the next tragedy.”
Bonnie Harper – Open Space Council for the St. Louis Region
Amidst ongoing development of forested land and the Trump administration’s rollback of environmental regulations, Bonnie Harper will likely have plenty of work to do in her new job.
In September, Harper became executive director of the Open Space Council for the St. Louis Region, a nonprofit that aims to maintain land and waterways for “practical purposes, recreation, and their natural beauty.”
Prior to Harper’s arrival, the organization worked in opposition to the construction of a 250,000-square-foot ice recreation complex in Creve Coeur Lake Memorial Park, a battle environmental groups won in 2017. But parts of that land had already been bulldozed before the group spearheading the project backed out; Open Space Council will now participate in a discussion with the St. Louis County Parks Department about what should happen with the area.
“We definitely would want to see more funding and more energy put towards managing public spaces for natural resources,” Harper said.
A St. Louis native, Harper earned her bachelor’s degree in environmental studies at Loyola University of Chicago and then spent a decade in New Zealand working as an environmental planner and policy advisor for various government agencies. Then, in 2016, she returned home to work as a sustainability planner for the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, a group that facilitates collaboration among local governments.
“I had grown to love the outdoors, because that’s what you do in New Zealand, and knew from growing up here that we had a great outdoor environment. I learned so much from managing natural resources [in New Zealand] and just felt that it was a good time to come back and apply that knowledge,” Harper said.
While in New Zealand, Harper gained a better understanding of how development practices and planning and zoning decisions impact open spaces. She was also looking for better ways to protect biodiversity on private property and thus wanted to inventory the living organisms on the land.
“Some landowners can be particularly sensitive to people surveying their land, especially if it’s the government doing it, so I was really trying to build a program and build trust with landowners that this is for the benefit of all and not just regulatory overreach,” Harper said. She was able to convince landowners to voluntarily participate in measures to protect biodiversity.
Now back in St. Louis, the Open Space Council is focused on volunteer efforts to clean up and restore the Meramec Watershed; identifying opportunities where land can be acquired and added to the public park land system; improving management of existing public land; and building stronger partnerships with likeminded organizations.
In conversations with landowners here, Harper hears some of the same concerns as in New Zealand about “threats from climate change, especially in our region because of flooding becoming more prevalent” but there are “also people who feel that we do already have enough public land and park space, why do we need much more? But then I have also heard that it’s hard to manage the public space we already have. We do already have a lot of land in our public system that is not being actively managed as well as it should be in terms of being on top of problems like invasive species and erosion” Harper said.
In summary, Harper is trying to persuade others that “open spaces have been important to the health and vitality of people and the environment and, as development encroaches and as our population grows, it’s going to be even more important to protect.”
Author: Eric Berger is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.