Meet Our 2024 Officers

Noel Ocen, President

“After retirement in 2009, I enrolled in the Master Gardener Program to begin an education that has continued to this day. The major turning point in this education was a truly life-altering lecture Steve Keto gave on native plants to the Master Gardener Association in early 2010. As he has done with so many others, Steve made me a believer. After that lecture, not just my gardening, but much of my life, gained a totally new focus. So after multiple yard design revisions, nectar & host plants added, bird feeders built, and butterflies counted, that brings me to today–thankful for what I’ve learned and fully aware that I have barely scratched the surface. It has been, and will continue to be, an exciting journey.”

Quyen Edwards, Vice President

Quyen works at the Portage District Library which is where she first became interested in native plants when she attended a presentation by Ilse Gebhard about Monarchs and Monarch Waystations. Quyen manages the Monarch Waystation and native plantings on the library’s property as well as the PDL Seed Library. She is especially interested in moths, butterflies, caterpillars, and their host plants.

Gail Simmons, Secretary

Gail Simmons retired from a long career in academia as a professor of biology and an administrator in the New York City area, and moved with her husband to Kalamazoo in 2021. After reading Doug Tallamy’s “Nature’s Best Hope” with a group of friends on Zoom during Pandemic she decided that the landscaping of their new property could not be a lawn. She sought out Wild Ones for guidance in how to proceed, and over the past two seasons has worked with landscape designer Christopher Hart to transform the front and back yard of their home from bare dirt into a native garden. Currently Gail serves as the KAWO Secretary, taking minutes at meetings of the Executive Committee, reading and responding to the Chapter’s email, and Zoom-hosting the winter programs.

Margo Rebar, Treasurer

“Our annual family vacations usually were to national parks. While my father patiently waited for the wind to stop or a cloud to pass so he could get the perfect landscape photo, I would wander away to examine the vegetation, trying to identify every flower and plant. My interests led to a botany degree and teaching sciences, preferably biology.

Removing invasive species started equally early at my home in Pennsylvania and has been a major undertaking in every home since. Interest in using native species became increasingly more important with each move. Through Wild Ones, I have become more involved in planting natives not only for myself but also for others, including wildlife. My husband now refers to me as Sisyphus – my seemingly never-ending task to remove Asian bittersweet, garlic mustard, etc. — you know the routine!”

Mel Luna, Chair of Programs and Publications, Executive Committee Member-at-large

“I’ve had a love of the plant world since I was a teenager, introduced to it through the ‘primitive skills’ community which is directly influenced by Native American wisdom and traditions. I’ve continued to expand and deepen my connection with the natural world via plants all my life, everywhere I’ve lived and travelled. This includes being a longtime vegan, foraging edibles and medicinals, and working on small farms. Traveling widely, my path has taken me into diverse ecosystems – from the Sonoran desert of AZ to the lush temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, from the coast of the Pacific ocean and back to the coast of the Great Lakes.

It is through my lifelong practice of bonding with each new environment and immersing myself in its unique magic that I sought out ‘my people’ (other plant enthusiasts) here in SW Michigan when I returned to my hometown in 2020. I’m very happy and excited to be a part of this special community through the education and outreach work of KAWO.”

Beth Bradburn, Website and Seedlings Editor, Executive Committee Member-at-large

“General reading about climate change and the global environmental crisis got me interested in growing native plants in my suburban yard. After retiring from teaching college literature a few years ago I started volunteering with various conservation organizations, including KAWO.”

Jessica Hagen, Chair of Outreach and Education, Executive Committee Member-at-large

Jessica is a local outdoor educator who enjoys chatting about all aspects of the natural world. She’s especially interested in connecting people to nature through adventurous experiences. Jessica first fell in love with native plants in their natural habitats but has since integrated them into her gardens, community gardens, and restoration sites.

Mike Weis, Executive Committee Member-at-large

Mike is the owner of the Kalamazoo-based landscape company, Dropseed! Native Gardens and Ecological Restoration. He has been gardening with native plants since 2005. He also works seasonally for Hidden Savanna Native Plant Nursery and volunteers as an ecological steward for Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy and Stewards of Kleinstuck, where he serves as a board member. Mike is also an accomplished percussionist, composer and conceptual photographer.

“I learned about native plant gardening in 2004 after being dragged by my wife to a presentation at the Chicago chapter of Wild Ones.”

Paul Laferriere, Co-Chair of Community Projects

“My first deeply-felt connection to the natural world was through birding. Now I appreciate and love learning about native plants, and find great satisfaction in exploring natural areas, and volunteering with conservation, restoration, and native gardening activities around Kalamazoo. I’ve been a member of KAWO Community Projects since 2020, and recently completed the MSUE Conservation Stewardship Program.”

Paul Olexia, Co-Chair of Community Projects and Past President

My educational background and training are in botany – actually mycology (fungi) so my I interest in plants extends back over 60 years. Prior to retiring from Kalamazoo College, I taught courses in botany, evolution, and environmental science (among a few others). I retired because there were a number of activities in which I wanted to be involved, but didn’t have the time. Among those were the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy and our chapter of Wild Ones. My primary interest and activity with our chapter has been with the Community Projects Committee for two or three reasons: 1) I have learned a tremendous amount about plants from these projects, 2) I believe Community projects provides visible and tangible evidence to the community at large of what we are all about, and 3) Posting our signs at these sites, helps spread our name in the community.