Trees, Water & People was cofounded in 1998 by Richard Fox and Stuart Conway, two foresters and friends who saw a huge need to address the pervasive deforestation in Latin America. As their plan evolved, they quickly realized that without addressing the underlying causes of deforestation, they would never be able to stop it.

We had to ask ourselves, if people are cutting down trees to cook their meals, then how can we help them reduce the amount of wood needed every time they cook.

For over twenty years, Trees, Water & People has been a leader in not only reforestation, but also in the design and distribution of clean cookstoves and other clean energy products which greatly reduce the use of natural resources for energy creation.

At Trees, Water & People, our work is guided by two core beliefs: that natural resources are best protected when local people play an active role in their care and management and that preserving local ecosystems is essential for the ongoing social, economic, and environmental health of communities everywhere.

We are staffed by a group of dedicated conservationists who feel strongly about helping communities better manage the natural resources upon which their livelihoods depend. All of our programs help people and the planet by providing communities with a hand-up and not a hand-out. This approach creates economic opportunity while improving the environment and human health.

But we can't do it by ourselves.

With your help, we can make a world of difference!


Children look out their window on Pine Ridge Reservation

Our mission is to improve people's lives by helping communities protect, conserve, and manage the natural resources upon which their long-term well-being depends.

Community-Based Development

Trees, Water & People's unique community-based development model is based on the philosophy that the best way to help those most in need is to involve them directly in the design and implementation of local environmental and economic development initiatives.

This creates ownership, involvement, and financial sustainability well into the future. Our proven development model of training and execution, coupled with an enterprise approach, engages and inspires local residents to preserve their precious natural resources.

Identify Community Needs

Success in community-based development means understanding local needs. Working with the community members, we help the group address their concerns and common interests.

Partner with Local NGOs

Strong partnerships with local organizations and consultants are crucial for each of our projects.

Design and Implement Projects

The solution needs to fit into the existing social system, have clear objectives, and ways to measure success.

Evaluate and Monitor Projects

Monitoring and evaluating are essential tools when determining the effectiveness of the project. Lessons learned from the initial implementation can be applied to current and future projects.

Meet Our Team

Sebastian Africano

Sebastian Africano

Executive Director

After over a decade of service with Trees, Water & People, Sebastian Africano is proud to have been selected to lead the organization as Executive Director. He has worked first-hand in almost every aspect of TWP's programs, and brings deep perspective and dedication to advancing the struggles and aspirations of the communities TWP serves. While Sebastian travels less these days than he did during his first ten years with the organization, he is excited to raise his two young kids among the extended TWP family, and to continue building bridges to connect our unique global community. Sebastian holds an MBA from Colorado State University.   

Valerie Small

Valerie Small, PhD

National Program Director

Dr. Valerie Small (Apsáalooke) joined TWP in April of 2019 as the new National Director of Tribal Programs. As a ‘First Generation” student to graduate with a college degree in her family, Valerie completed her PhD in BioAgricultural Sciences & Pest Management-Weed Sciences Division from Colorado State University in 2013. Her interdisciplinary research was conducted on the homelands of the Crow Tribe of Indians (Crow Nation) (home of her maternal grandfather). Her research was focused on trees, water and the Crow People, and incorporated western science within a traditional knowledges framework. This research was essentially a vulnerability assessment of the culturally significant riparian species, Plains Cottonwood that is quickly being replaced by the invasive species Russian olive, along the Little Bighorn and Bighorn River watersheds within the exterior boundaries of the Crow Indian reservation. This research was also recently published in the recently released 4th National Climate Assessment as a case study in Chapter 22, Northern Great Plains.

Val’s experience in program development stems from her previously working at a Tribal College in South-central Montana (Little Big Horn College), as well as co-convening a climate-smart training course for Tribes in the North-central region with the North-Central Climate Adaptation Science Center (Fort Collins). Val has also participated in training workshops for Tribes in the Southwest, and conducted research for Tribal-driven climate change vulnerability assessments. Val is dedicated to improving access and availability to harvest culturally significant plant/animals species within Tribal lands for future generations to use as food sources (decolonizing the diet), and plant species utilized in the practice of sacred ceremonies. TWP and Val believe that Tribes should set their own conservation priorities and manage their own conservation projects. Thus, Val will be looking to continue to partner with Indigenous based non-profits and grassroots organizations so that Indigenous communities can create local and sustainable job opportunities to mitigate the impacts of extreme weather events (flooding, drought, and wildfire) and monitor restoration and reforestation efforts due to a warming climate. Val is looking to continue to improve our Solar Suitcase (We Share Solar) curriculum through partnering with instructors/teachers from Tribal Colleges, universities, and high schools to educate Tribal youth on solar energy technology. We at TWP seek to improve ecosystems while building economic development opportunities within Native American communities in North America, Alaska and the Pacific Islands.    

James Calabaza

James Calabaza

National Program MANAGER

Born in the state of New Mexico, James grew up with a passion to help indigenous communities across the country. As a first generation college graduate with an Agricultural Business degree from Colorado State Univerisity, James strives towards educating others about the importance of higher education and self-identity.

After working in the government sector for a few years, James realized his heart belonged to the nonprofit world. James joined TWP as the National Program Coordinator and will work closely with communities across the country on developing a plan to move their communities towards a renewable and cleaner world. As a proud indigenous community member, he understands and experienced first hand the hardships that affect indigenous communities across the country. Following his passion and spiritual education from his community elders, his vision is to educate and empower the warriors of tomorrow, all while respecting and honoring our ancestral roots.   

Emily Swartz

Emily Swartz

National Program Coordinator

Born in Fort Collins, an early love of the natural world was instilled in Emily. She has worked with Conservation Corps programs across the United States. Most recently she focused on engaging underserved communities in Tucson with hands-on conservation work, education and job skills. Emily cares deeply about work supporting human communities and the natural world.

Emily holds a degree in Geography and Environmental Studies from the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. Passionate about all things maps she is looking forward to leveraging her GIS background.

Emily is an avid ceramic artist, passionate about good food and outdoor activities.   

Gemara Gifford

Gemara Gifford

International Director

Gemara joined TWP in 2015 as an intern for the International Program after she finished her Master's work at Cornell University. She served as our Development Director in 2016 and in 2017 became our International Director. Gem has dedicated her career to showing that conservation and community development can work hand-in-hand across the Americas, especially in the most fragmented landscapes like Central America. Gem’s vision is to work closely with our local partners to co-design holistic programs that emphasize reforestation, improved cookstoves, sustainable agriculture, water security, biodiversity monitoring, and women's leadership in rural Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. Gem is a Denver-native, and received her M.S. in Natural Resources from Cornell University in 2015 as a Gates Millennium Scholar, and her B.S. in Zoology at Colorado State University in 2012 as a First Generation Student Scholar. When Gem isn’t traveling, she enjoys the Colorado sunshine, her two kitties, and spending time with her family.    

Valentina de Rooy

Valentina de Rooy

Regional Manager

Valentina joined TWP in 2017 as the Regional Coordinator, combining her passion to work with rural communities and multidisciplinary research to develop bottom-up M&E processes, side-by-side with local partners, strengthening their capacities in leadership and gender-based approaches. As a Central American, Valentina believes that the changes for her region must be systemic and grassroots. Therefore, she continues to expand her work, aligned with the philosophy of TWP to establish close and trusting relationships with people in order to walk alongside communities in the transformation and regeneration of their territories towards sustainability and well-being.

Valentina was born and raised in Nicaragua. She has her B.S. in Psychology, a Diploma in Public Management for Territorial Development, and is completing her Master's Degree in Cognitive Sciences at the University of Costa Rica. In her free time, she enjoys crafting, dancing salsa, exploring nature, and learning about indigenous traditions.   

Diane Vella

Diane Vella

Finance Director

Director of Finance and Administration since 2007, Diane brings her years of accounting experience to maintain TWP's financial health, as well as managing our human resources. When she isn't crunching numbers, you can find her working with local animal welfare organizations, playing the piano, or cruising around town on her bike.   

Sammi Lauth

Sammi Lauth

Grant Coordinator

New York born and raised, Sammi joined TWP in 2018 as an intern for the Development Program. While pursuing her undergrad at Colorado State University, she conducted ethnographic research in South Africa’s greater Kruger area, using qualitative social sciences to look at conservation and development through a critical lens.

Sammi is excited to support TWP, as it brings together her degrees in Cultural Anthropology and Human Dimensions of Natural Resources. She is passionate about using the power of grant writing to advance the work of communities on-the-ground, and act as an intermediary between funders and our partners across the Americas.

Outside of TWP, Sammi is a musician who nerds out over music history and spends as much time outdoors as possible.   

Rachel Greenlee

Rachel Greenlee

Donor Data Manager

Rachel joined TWP in 2019 as the Donor Data Manager. She has a B.A. in Psychology with a minor in Nonprofit Leadership from the University of North Dakota. While in North Dakota she had the opportunity to work with the resettled refugee population by assisting them in learning English, navigating their new community, and by providing opportunities for the American born community to engage and learn about their new neighbors. She has spent time volunteering in India on projects aimed at women’s empowerment and providing educational opportunities to children who are in need. Rachel is now looking forward to combining her ever-growing love of data and passion for improving the lives of those most in need as TWP’s Donor Data Manager.

Rachel is originally from northern Wisconsin but has lived in Fort Collins since 2016 with her husband and two cats. In her spare time she enjoys eating, cooking, hiking, and camping.   

Ray Tollison

Ray Tollison

Director of Donor Experience

At this point Ray is as close to a Fort Collins native as you can be without actually being a Fort Collins native. For the past 25 years he has lived here with his favorite person Sarah and together raised three other great humans. Between lots of outdoor activities over the last 25 years he has managed to work for some great organizations, met some incredible people and had the honor of telling their stories to the world through design and photography.   

Ray Tollison

José Chalit

Communications Manager

Originally from Mexico City, José grew up moving around Latin America and the U.S. before finally setting down roots in Colorado in 2004, all of which stimulates José’s passion for storytelling and community development. As a filmmaker and graphic artist, José has always been committed to telling stories that involve local community members and generate social impact. Whether it's creating documentaries with migrant, indigenous farmworkers in Northern Washington, or translating Spanish for families during parent-teacher conferences in schools, José cares deeply about empowering disenfranchised communities to thrive through many means of communication.

José comes to TWP after graduating from Seattle University in 2017 with a B.A. in Film Studies and Theology. He is excited to continue forming and creating TWP’s story, and loves being back in Colorado while also having opportunites to work with Latin American and Native populations across the hemisphere.    

Hellen Castro

Hellen Castro

Development and Outreach Manager

Hellen was born and raised in San Jose, Costa Rica. She grew up enjoying the biodiversity of her country, which is why she is passionate about conservation and her culture. Hellen holds a B.S degree in Communications from the University of Costa Rica and in 2018 she moved to Colorado to obtain the Global, Social and Sustainable Enterprise MBA from Colorado State University.

For her capstone project, she got to travel around Chile and Costa Rica to research and develop a business model to empower Latin American entrepreneurs whose innovations had a positive impact on the environment. This experience helped her learn even more about the challenges of Latin American rural areas, which is why she is excited to contribute to her community as Development and Outreach Manager for TWP.    

Daniela Bueso

Daniela Bueso

Community Relations Coordinator

Born in Colombia, Daniela grew up with a passion for the outdoors and her culture. In 2000, she moved to Miami were she began her professional career by getting a B.S. degree in Environmental Studies at Florida International University. Through volunteering and internships with the university and other nonprofits, she developed an interest for marine ecosystems, restoration projects and community engagement. After graduating, she took an incredible journey to Paraguay where she lived for 27 months as a Conservation Specialist with the Peace Corps. It was through this experience that her passion for community based conservation and working with local communities grew exponentially.

This led to her to Graduate School where received and M.S. in Conservation Leadership through Learning at Colorado State University. While living in Belize for her master’s capstone project, she traveled around the country talking to various stakeholders and conducting community consultations to explore new ways to manage the invasive lionfish. This experience further increased her interest in working with diverse groups of people and learning how to collaborate effectively. She joined TWP as an intern in 2018 and is now as a community relations coordinator. She is excited about the opportunity to bring her people skills to the table and work with various groups of local and international stakeholders.    

Board of Directors

Jake Tornatzky, President  
Company owner at DriEV

Jon Becker, Vice President  
Former Co-Owner, SolarGlass Window & Door

Henry Mouton, Treasurer  
Operations and Sustainability Professional

Paul Thayer, Secretary  
Special Advisor to the Provost \ Emeritus Vice President for Student Success Colorado State University

Jenny Bramhall  
Owner of Clothes Pony

Cynthia Brown  
Colorado State University Professor of Rangeland Management

Stuart Conway  
Cofounder of Trees, Water & People

Kathryn Higgins  
Owner of Motherlove Herbal Company

Irene Romsa  
Court Interpreter, Colorado Judicial Branch

Tyrone Smith  
Director, Native American Cultural Center Colorado State University

Raul Tuazon  
Founder and Principal at Sustain Harmonics

Marilyn Thayer  
Director, TRIO Academic Advancement Center Colorado State University

James Welch  
Founder (retired), Bella Energy

Lara Williams  
Cofounder, Green Team Real Estate


A tree nursery outside a Honduran home.