About WYP Staff
WYP counselors bring many years of experience working in naturalist roles, social services, teaching, and mentoring. Our staff members show dedication to life skills and mentoring with a nature-based approach. Staff members are First Aid/CPR certified, most have Wilderness First Aid and some have Wilderness First Responder. We fingerprint all of our staff and volunteers. We invite you to get to know us further.
If you are interested in joining the WYP team as program staff, please learn more about our volunteer opportunities. Most staff start as volunteers–we look forward to you joining us.
Dan first attended a tracking workshop with Wilderness Youth Project (WYP) in 2001 and hasn’t been able to quit the project since. Over the years he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of WYP. Although he’s been a resident of Goleta since 1994, his reverent appreciation of the environment around the Santa Barbara Channel has yet to plateau. He’s guided by a certainty that connection with the landscape around us helps develop the personal gifts that enrich our lives and the community that contains us.
Erika was born and raised in Santa Barbara. In 2001 she returned home after graduating from UC Santa Cruz, for a job with SBCAG Traffic Solutions, where she worked for over 5 years promoting sustainable transportation. Erika’s love of the outdoors comes from growing up in Mission Canyon and from attending Santa Barbara Middle School. Her pastimes include surfing, biking, listening to and watching birds, playing music, dancing salsa, spending time with friends and family and volunteering with groovy non-profit groups doing good work in our fine town.
A sailor and backpacker, Michelle is thankful to bring her love of the outdoors to work. 2014 marks Michelle’s ninth year with Wilderness Youth Project. Prior to that she spent seven years as an executive in the software industry and ten years in grassroots fundraising, organizing and writing. A UCSB alum, Michelle feels fortunate to be a twenty-one –year resident of Santa Barbara, and spends her free time exploring the wilderness in our own back yard with her teenage daughter.
Director of Early Childhood Programs
Kelly Villarruel grew up in Santa Barbara and has an intimate knowledge and love of our area. She has a degree in early childhood education and has worked in both preschool and home day care settings for more than 20 years. She also holds a degree in Environmental Horticulture with an emphasis on restoration and regeneration. With Wilderness Youth Project she is thrilled to find an environment to combine her passions for children, nature, and awareness skills. She currently is our lead mentor for our new forest preschool program. She is the mother of 3 and proud grandmother of a healthy boy.
Program Director & Lead Program Staff
How do we live in a place of constant connection and bring a genuine culture to our future generations? This is a daily question that inspires Sharon to follow children in the natural world, work with her hands and guide young and old through life transitions. In addition to supporting programs, staff and families at WYP, Sharon co-created Women’s Reclamation and Renewal and offers personal and group programs for teen Rites of Passage, Women and Fire, and Women’s guided quests. Sharon enjoys surfing in the Pacific, cooking and spending time with her family. Sharon still gets butterflies every time she witnesses someone getting fire by friction for the first time. When will you try?
Charity grew up in New Mexico, hiking and camping with her family in the Rockies. After earning a BS in Interior Design/Architecture from Drexel University in Philadelphia, she realized how much she missed the mountains and sunshine of her youth. She moved to Santa Barbara in 2005 to work in the architecture field before coming upon the community of Wilderness Youth Project, which aligns more perfectly with her values of connecting with the outdoor world. She can most often be found running on the trails or scaling the rocky outcrops of California and beyond.
Lead Program Staff
Andrew is always quick to point out that he grew up in Vermont. Throughout college he worked off and on in the field for the Adirondack Nature Conservancy. After graduating with an Earth Science Degree from Wesleyan University he continued the work of backcountry education in New York, Alaska and California. He holds an MEd and has taught 3rd and 4th grade, as well as Middle School. His wife and daughter continue to school him in the wonders of the beach while he revels in the Mediterranean winters of the California Coast.
Mario (Chiqui) Mendez
Lead Program Staff
Mario is a native of Colombia and carries with him a deep connection between people and our environment. Having lived in South America, the Middle East, Northern Europe, and various parts of the United States, he has an innate ability to learn from and adapt to diverse environments and cultures. After earning a degree in Business, Mario has continually found himself being involved in programs that benefit the youth, whether by working to find homes for older orphans, helping at risk youth find strength and support, or by sharing his passion for life and the natural world with students of all ages. After enjoying three years living in Lake Tahoe, Mario decided to move to Santa Barbara and continue in his path of education and mentoring. In addition to his passion for nature and education, Mario loves to dance, play music, ride his bike, and spend time with his family and friends.
Anthony was born and raised in Santa Rosa, California. As a child, Anthony spent much of his time outdoors, and enjoyed snowboarding during winters and wakeboarding during the summer. For his undergraduate education, Anthony attended UCSB where he studied Philosophy and History of Art and Architecture with an emphasis on architecture and the environment. While at UCSB, he improved his Spanish fluency and ultimately spent his junior year studying in Granada, Spain. After returning from his time abroad, Anthony interned at the Environmental Defense Center, and became more active in the local environmental community. As a result of this internship, and also environmental classes taken at UCSB, Anthony grew more passionate for environmental justice. He now is pursuing a career that fosters positive relationships between people and the environment that they live in, and is happy to be on that path with WYP.
Office Manager & Registrar
Joselyne was born and raised in Costa Rica. As a child, she spent much of her time outdoors with her family, which helped her find great appreciation for nature at a very young age. After moving to Los Angeles at the age of twelve, she missed being surrounded by the beauty of nature. This factor helped guide her decision to move to Santa Barbara for her undergraduate degree. At UCSB, she majored in Environmental Studies and got a minor in Linguistics, combining her passions for languages and the environment. Joselyne brings a variety of skills to Wilderness Youth Project, including project management, customer service and a passion for learning new skills and enjoying problem solving and dynamic challenges.
Lead Program Staff
Lincoln began fox walking, scampering and somersaulting with WYP in 2007, but by the time he left for China in late 2009, he was known only as Linco Stinko. After a stint as an adventure guide on a tropical island, and as a fearsome pirate in the South China Sea, he returned to California. Once back, he worked for two years as a garden teacher in a Berkeley middle school where he facilitated students’ connection to the soil, plants and animals through the tending, harvesting, cooking and eating of delicious organic food. Serendipity and his immense love for the beaches, mountains and creeks of Santa Barbara have brought him back, and he is delighted to be working with WYP again!
When he is not up in a tree on a WYP program or brewing tea in a cave with youth, he is likely up in some other tree with some other tea, cruising around town on his bike, or playing in the garden.
Lead Program Staff
Dan’s quest for deep connection and understanding of relationship with self, others, and the natural world has led him into various roles and adventures involving youth and wilderness settings. Spending his early childhood in Yosemite and growing up in a large family (11 children), he developed an integral love and appreciation for family, community, and nature. He has traveled the world working with youth in Scotland, India, Europe, and parts of the USA—acquiring an AA in Outdoor Recreation Leadership, a BA in Theology, becoming a husband and father, spending a year with the Regenerative Design and Nature Awareness program, and ending up in Santa Barbara. Dan holds a MA in counseling psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute. He is now working to integrate the power of Coyote Mentoring in his work as a Marriage and Family Therapist.
Lead Program Staff
Maya was born and raised in Santa Barbara. She was blessed to spend her childhood exploring around her family home in the mountains, travelling around Central America for first grade, homeschooling in San Jose Creek and enjoying periodic Wilderness Youth Project trips as a participant. She started volunteering with WYP as a teen and has been involved as a staff member since she was 18 years old. She received a Bachelor of Science degree from the Evergreen State College in Olympia Washington, with an emphases in Environmental Education and Evolutionary Biology. After graduating she spent a year travelling and volunteering in Europe and Asia, including working on farms in Turkey, bringing underserved Nepali children outside for sit spots, trekking through the Himalayas, and making crafts with Vietnamese children with disabilities. Since returning to WYP she has gotten her Wilderness First Responder certification and level two track and sign certification. When she’s not out adventuring with kids she loves to do acro yoga, craft, dance and explore nature with friends.
Lead Program Staff
Charlie’s passion for the wilderness began in the rural setting of upstate New York. As a boy he wandered the forests, paddled rivers and lakes and explored the Adirondacks. Eventually he was lured to the west coast where he began working with Wilderness Youth Project in its founding years. He has trained with The Tree of Peace Society, Tom Brown Jr’s Tracker School, Wilderness Awareness School, The School of Lost Borders, Quail Springs Permaculture, NAMTA Montessori Adolescent Institute, American Mountain Guide Association and NOLS Wilderness Medicine Institute. Charlie has a deep appreciation for the influences of positive mentors in his life and stewardship of the environment is a prominent aspect of his work. Charlie continues to fish, sail, rock climb, wander along animal trails and sit by fires on the west coast.
Lead Program Staff
Jenn is a proud and grateful momma of a vibrant 4 year old boy. She has a deep love of and appreciation for nature and all its wonder-filled gifts. She grew up in South Lake Tahoe climbing trees and mountains and has always sought refuge in the natural world. She is also a bilingual educator here in Santa Barbara. Her interest in and love of Spanish language and culture began at an early age and led her to pursue living and studying abroad in Mexico and in Spain. Locally, she has taught at César Chávez Charter School and Orca School, as well as Wild Roots Forest School. She feels fortunate to have joined the WYP community where she can share her love and curiosity for the outdoors with children of all ages. She is dedicated to building deep nature connections, sowing seeds of permaculture and creating sustainable communities.
Volunteer Coordinator & Lead Program Staff
Sonia’s passion for the outdoors grows every day while spending time outside with kids. Although she spent her collegiate days and much of her career in Civil Engineering, she spent her free time hiking, backpacking and getting outside whenever she could. Now that she is raising a daughter, she continues to be inspired by the joy of being outside with children.
Evan was born and grew up on the coastal side of the Santa Ana Mountains of southern California. Before joining WYP he spent six years leading outdoor adventures with Earthroots. Evan also currently works with Seasons Preschool here in Santa Barbara. Besides being a mentor to kids, his favorite parts of life include Aikido, meditation, gardening, tree climbing, sharing love with others, and furthering his knowledge of the natural world.
Nick moved to Santa Barbara in 1994 to attend UCSB where he graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature. He continued his studies in Oriental Medicine and Herbology, becoming a Licensed Acupuncturist. Nick has great interest in the native plants of Santa Barbara and how the Chumash used those plants as medicine. When Nick’s son, Adrien, turned three he began attending WYP and was immediately embraced by the community. It was by experiencing the positive results that WYP had on Adrien (positive role models, tight community, parents with similar values) that led Nick to become a member of the staff. Nick is dedicated to enlivening those values in all of the children and parents in the WYP community.
Gwendy brings eight years of experience and a natural affinity for details to her job as the bookkeeper for Wilderness Youth Project. She came to WYP in 2008 while completing her Masters in Counseling at Pacifica Graduate Institute. Her main job currently is raising two rambunctious young children. One of the highlights of her week is picking up her son Kelsey from Chickadees, covered in dirt and smiles and clutching treasures, full of stories to share.
Casey has been a Wilderness Mentor for 15 years in various wild places around the globe. In the past few years he has created his own home school mentoring program for teens. Originally from Ojai, CA, where Casey resides currently, he teaches teens and adults how to make bows and arrows, track animals, tan hides, make friction fires and do back bends (teaching yoga). Most recently Casey has begun learning the basics of bird language in the woods of Ventura County, and spear fishing in the kelp forest of the Pacific Ocean.
Lead Program Staff
Originally from New Jersey, Rachel graduated in 2006 from Muhlenberg College with a degree in Psychology and a minor in Environmental Studies. After graduating, she began working for various outdoor education centers on the East Coast in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts and North Carolina. Once she began working as a naturalist in California in 2008, she immediately fell in love with the west coast. Since then, she has obtained her Wilderness First Responder certification and has lead trips for hundreds of students in exciting places such as the Colorado River, Joshua Tree, Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Sequoia, Point Reyes, Santa Cruz Mountains, and all along the California coast. Some of her favorite things to do are rock climbing, running, poi (fire spinning), music, laughing, and travel. Her passion for climbing and adventure has taken her to such places as Hong Kong, Thailand, India, Morocco, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and Mexico. She believes her enthusiasm for the outdoors originated from the summers she spent as a kid at overnight camp in Maine. Camp helped her build self-confidence, become more self-reliant, establish life-long friendships, and develop an appreciation and respect for nature. As an outdoor educator, she strives to achieve these same things in the students she works with.
Lead Program Staff
Ulises brings years of experience working with young people to his work with WYP. He’s a Santa Barbara native. He grew up with the loving mentoring offered by the Santa Barbara United Boys and Girls Club and has been both volunteer and staff with them. Ulises also has a landscaping business and is an experienced professional caregiver to an elder who has become his family. Ulises is known to his WYP kids as Ulises Scrub Jay and often can be identified from afar because of his ponytail of feathers. He cares deeply about working with kids from all backgrounds.
Jessica Sieber Grasso
Lead Program Staff
Growing up on the east coast and now having lived in California for over fifteen years, Jess has an ever growing love and respect for landscape and cultural diversity. She began working in the outdoors almost twenty years ago. She holds a B.A. in Multicultural Education, is a certified Yoga Instructor and a Wilderness First Responder. Jess discovered Wilderness Youth Project in 2007 and began deepening her commitment to nature connection and mentoring. To expand her facilitation skills, Jess has completed courses at Regenerative Design Institute, The School of Lost Borders, Lulu Bandha’s and The Ojai Foundation. Jess is constantly reminded that the relationships we build with nature, one another, and ourselves are our greatest vehicles for learning. Jess joyfully lives in the mountains of Ojai with her family.
Janelle was born and raised in Goleta, California and grew up adventuring in its mountains and beaches of with family and friends. She graduated from Santa Barbara City College with an Associate Degree in Liberal Studies, with a passion for environmental studies and world cultures. She worked for a beach lifestyle company for 11 years, as a Teacher’s Assistant in a preschool and currently work for a homeless shelter for families as a Children’s Program Leader. She loves that she’s able to reintroduce gardening and nature to children in both jobs. She’s also volunteered for the Environmental Defense Center and The Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens Horticultural Department. Because she grew up in nature and with many pets, she has a deep love and respect for all animals and nature and knows the importance of protecting them, as well as teaching that respect for future generations.
Kristin Van Der Kar
Lead Program Staff
Kristin has been nourished by nature ever since she was a young child. Growing up on a farm in Carpinteria gave her the opportunity to form connection to place by climbing avocado trees and tending goats. She pursued her love for the environment and her passion for working with children at UCSB where she majored in Environmental Studies with an emphasis on Environmental Education. Kristin also studied in Thailand and Malaysia where she spent her days snorkeling through the coral reefs to collect data on the effects of a warming ocean and ocean acidification. Kristin is excited to be working with Wilderness Youth Project where she feels her gifts can encourage children to connect with the natural world. She believes that deep connection with the natural world fosters humans that are stewards of the earth. When she is not working with children you will find her swimming, hiking, surfing, crafting, painting, gardening or camping in our local mountains.
Brieanna’s connection with nature began before her ability to walk. Yet what truly tipped the scales for her to becoming a lifelong friend, lover, student, and advocate of the living world was the solace she first found during her early explorations in the Eucalyptus forest and canyons near her home growing up in San Diego. When she was sad the trees understood and worked their healing ways, and they have been the guides ever since. She holds a BA in Biological Anthropology from UC Santa Barbara and can easily be found at the farmer’s markets selling almonds, dates, and lavender, with a big smile on her face. She is forever grateful for the life-giving union she is developing between plants and animals.
Gabby was born in Santa Barbara and grew up in North Carolina with four siblings. Her parents regularly sent her and her siblings outside to play next to the creeks and in the woods. Without realizing it, nature became her oasis. After moving back to Santa Barbara it was more difficult to access nature in the same way. Fortunately, when she turned fifteen, she joined a program called Montana Yellowstone Expeditions (MYE). This program took students who would not have the resources or accessibility, to dive deep into outdoor education in the dreamy land of Montana. From this moment on Gabby has been more and more eager to deepen her relationship to nature and to learn more about the subtle voices coming from her animal and plant friends. She’s received leadership training from the National Outdoor Leadership School in Washington and is a Wilderness First Responder. She has worked for REACH, MYE’s predecessor, for two years. Through these experiences, she’s recognized how important it is for ALL children to have access to nature connection, regardless of socioeconomic status, location, etc. Gabby began to volunteer with WYP in the fall of 2009 and in the summer of 2011, after a sunny season of volunteering, she became a part of the WYP staff. She also works for the UCSB Adventure Program and is attending UCSB to complete her Bachelor’s Degree in Global Studies.
Aaron is a recent graduate from UCSB with a degree in Environmental and Chicano studies. He started with WYP in the summer of 2016, after being highly recommended to us by a professor from his Environmental Studies program. During his time at UCSB he was heavily involved in working with programs that benefit youth; he mentored and tutored underrepresented high school students and at-risk youth to pursue higher education and a better life. He loves the short and long term connections he can make with children through mentoring, and believes that helping kids appreciate and respect the natural world is important to everyone’s future. Aaron is eager, curious and ready to play and connect with children from all walks of life.
Melaina St John
Melaina feels so blessed to have been born and raised in the beautiful mountains of Santa Barbara, California. Since starting with WYP in 2015, she has not only enriched her love and knowledge of wilderness skills but has been able to work as a leader and educator for children. The outdoors has been an outlet to her for her entire life, especially after her first backpacking trip to Big Sur. From that point on it was clear that her life would be dedicated to this passion of exploring the world because it is where she truly feels at home. She took some time off to travel throughout Europe and Asia and is now back as a student at Santa Barbara City College with the goal to obtain her bachelors degree in Environmental Science and Child Development. She is currently working alongside Kelly Villarruel in the forest preschool program and is ecstatic to run and play in the dirt with the little ones as they learn, grow, and revel in the constant miracles this Earth provides us with.
Diana La Riva
Diana grew up in Orange County frequenting the beach and tide pools year round and camping in the sequoias each summer. She studied Environmental Plant Science, Agronomy, Natural Resources and Italian at Purdue University. By traveling and exploring other lands and cultures, she expands her curiosity and understanding of various people and places and their connections to our natural world. She feels a strong connection to what we eat and our food systems, learning through small farm experiences and teaching in school gardens. She shares her passions and curiosity with our youth through WYP, nannying and everyday interactions. Diana can be compared to a solar powered rainbow maker: she is energized by being outside, her mind spins scientifically and she spreads rainbows everywhere she goes.
Sarah is a Santa Barbara native who recently migrated back to the south lands after a decade among the redwoods and waves of Santa Cruz, CA. She has experience mentoring youth as a surf and JR lifeguard Instructor, swim coach, and outdoor adventuring nanny. Sarah’s other livelihood has been as a massage therapist for the last 13 years, and so if she’s not adventuring in the ocean or mountains she can be found easing aches and pains and helping folks reconnect with their bodies with therapeutic touch and herbalism. She has had a program crush on WYP after hearing many a tale of their adventures , and after moving back to SB and volunteering during the summer 2016, she joined WYP staff in fall 2016.
Sarah works as a wildlife biologist based out of Ojai and travels throughout southern and central California in search of bird calls and blooming flowers. She studied Environmental Science and Ecology at UCSD which led her to Costa Rica to conduct botanical research and then to the Dominican Republic to teach environmental education with the Peace Corps. Originally from Ojai, she’s very grateful to call the Ojai valley her home once again. She loves playing music, skiing, hiking and biking, riddles, and really bad jokes. Sarah is staff for WYP’s Ojai afterschool program
Cody has a passion for the landscapes, creatures and people of the southwest. It is this passion that has brought him to the deserts of Arizona to support asylum seekers and back to Santa Barbara to bring kids into nature. He loves how a day in the wilderness feels like a string of timeless experiences rather than a linear agenda dominated by minutes and hours. He enjoys spending time with his family, watching hummingbirds from his patio and every time that someone reminds him to look up at the stars.
Nicholas lives to explore this planet and learn about its beautiful diversity and connection. He loves learning about all life forms including animate and inanimate ones and how they are all linked together and supportive of each other in their cycles. He worked in horticultural therapy in Hawaii with Pacific Quest, a company that used a rites of passage and wilderness therapy model to help struggling young adults, was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia for 2 years, and has worked as a camp counselor and mentor at Camp Mendocino, a Boys and Girls summer camp. He also has experience working with people who have intellectual and developmental disabilities through a local non-profit Pathpoint. Working with Wilderness Youth Project fills him with joy and hope for our future generations. He wishes you peace, happiness, and laughter!
Program Staff & Photographer
Eric was hatched in the foothills of Granada Hills, CA and spent his fledgling years wandering nearby creeks and canyons, climbing trees and wishing he could fly. Early experiences camping with family, Indian guides and boy scouts left him with a great love for the outdoors. A self pronounced collector of experiences, he has worked as a firefighter/EMT, orthopedic technician, martial arts instructor, and owner of numerous small businesses. For the past 16 years Eric has earned his keep primarily through the art of photography, honing his skills, partially, with Wilderness Youth Project as their in-house photographer since 2010. At the same time he started as a volunteer with WYP and eventually was hired as support staff. Having accepted a full time position at UCSB, his WYP time is currently limited to filling in as needed and special photo projects.