MountainTrue Announces 2023 Annual Award Winners

News release from MountainTrue:
MountainTrue is proud to announce our annual award winners for 2023. These awards are given to MountainTrue members and volunteers who have been outstanding in their commitment to protecting WNC waterways, forests and communities. Awards were formally presented at our October annual gathering at Devil’s Foot Beverage Co. in Asheville, NC. 
The awards are as follows:
Esther Cunningham Award Winner: Jane Laping
MountainTrue’s most prestigious award is given in honor of Esther Cunningham, the founder of our predecessor organization, the Western North Carolina Alliance. 
Jane co-founded MountainTrue’s faith-based program, the Creation Care Alliance (CCA, formerly called WNC Green Congregations), in 2012 and has served on the Steering Team ever since. Earlier this year, she filled in as Interim Coordinator while CCA Director Sarah Ogletree was on maternity leave for 14 weeks. Additionally, Jane has been the Creation Care Team lead at First Presbyterian Church in Asheville since 2010. 
Jane volunteered in various roles with Presbyterians for Earth Care (PEC), a national eco-justice network that connects, equips, and inspires Presbyterians to make creation care a central concern of the church. She currently serves as PEC’s Vice Moderator. In 2007, she wrote Earth Care Congregations, a certification program for Presbyterian Churches that was adopted by the Presbyterian Church (USA). There are now ~300 certified Earth Care Congregations in the US incorporating creation care in their worship, education, facilities, and outreach.
Jane is currently working with the Plastic Free WNC coalition. She recently assisted in surveying local organizations that serve the underserved and conducted in-person interviews with unhoused individuals to better understand how they would be impacted by the coalition’s proposed single-use plastic bag ban. 

Volunteer of the Year for the Central Region: Elizabeth (Beth) Porter

Elizabeth moved to the Asheville area ten years ago from her hometown in Northeast Florida to take a position teaching environmental economics at UNCA. She knew when she arrived in the area that she also wanted to find “her people.” Having been an active volunteer with the St. Johns Riverkeeper, she began volunteering for Western North Carolina Alliance (the organization that would later become MountainTrue) and French Broad Riverkeeper events. Her years spent canoeing in Florida translated into a particular affinity for river cleanups and all of the interesting things and people to be found on the river. Elizabeth is currently in her second year teaching sustainability and environmental policy in the Department of Business Administration at Mars Hill University. When she’s not on campus, there’s a good chance you’ll find her out on her stand-up paddleboard on French Broad Section 9.

Volunteer of the Year for the Southern Region: Michael Cheng

Michael Cheng is no stranger to the Broad River, as he frequently joins Broad Riverkeeper David Caldwell for river cleanups, races, and other events. In fact, Michael and his wife, Patsy, were two of the wonderful sponsors of the 8th Annual Sarah Sweep and First Broad River Festival, which took place on September 9 in Shelby, NC. As David has said, “Supporters like Michael help make our work possible; the Broad River is cleaner and healthier because of Michael and his enthusiasm for its wellbeing! Michael, MountainTrue is grateful for you and all you do to support the Broad Riverkeeper in protecting the Broad River Watershed!” 

Last fall, Broad River enthusiast Michael Cheng, several volunteers and Broad Riverkeeper David Caldwell were joined by the Voices of Deoli film crew while cleaning up a section of the First Broad River. Cinematographer Oxana Onipko filmed the cleanup as part of the Voices of Deoli feature film, which shares the stories of Deoli Internment Camp survivors, including Michael Cheng. We encourage folks to support the Voices of Deoli crew by learning about the project on and following Voices of Deoli on Facebook and Instagram. Learn more about Michael by reading his interview on the MountainTrue blog:

Volunteer of the Year for the High Country Region: Marta Toran

Originally from Spain, Marta has made the High Country her home for the past 16 years. She teaches environmental science, oceanography, and climate change courses in the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences at Appalachian State University. She also coordinates the department’s outreach program, which supports K12 STEM education across Western North Carolina and promotes environmental stewardship among students by connecting them with local organizations. Her students regularly participate in habitat restoration, native plant removal, and water sampling efforts organized by the Watauga Riverkeeper. Marta also helps students become certified as North Carolina Environmental Educators. She has been awarded grants from organizations like the EPA to help educate people about natural resources and how to protect them. She’s proud to see her students get involved in the community through environmental advocacy organizations like MountainTrue, especially when they bring friends along with them. She also hopes that one day, North Carolina will catch up to Europe in environmental regulations forbidding the use of single-use plastic and regarding other measures to reduce plastic waste and encourage recycling.

Volunteer of the Year for the Western Region: Jonathan Micancin

Jonathan Micancin earned his Ph.D. at UNC Chapel Hill and is an Assistant Professor of Biology at Young Harris College, where he teaches courses in conservation biology, ecology, environmental science, and related topics. Since coming to Young Harris in 2019, Jonathan has taken the lead on MountainTrue’s Corn Creek Riparian Restoration Project. He has involved his students in all aspects of the work, organizing volunteer workdays to remove nonnative invasive plants and plant native ones in the streamside corridor. Last fall, he began working with Young Harris College to replace its landscaping with native trees and shrubs, again having his students create the plans and help implement them. They bought many plants through our Fall Native Tree & Shrub sale fundraiser. Jonathan and his students also study the behavioral ecology, evolution, and conservation of cryptic amphibians. They discovered the decline of southern cricket frogs in the Southeast, extended the known range of Collinses’ mountain chorus frog in Georgia, and are currently studying rare and imperiled Appalachian salamanders.

About MountainTrue
MountainTrue champions resilient forests, clean waters, and healthy communities. We are committed to keeping our mountain region a beautiful place to live, work, and play. Our members protect our forests, clean up our rivers, plan vibrant and livable communities, and advocate for a sound and sustainable future for all. MountainTrue is active in the Broad, French Broad, Green, Hiwassee, Little Tennessee, New, and Watauga watersheds and is home to the Broad Riverkeeper, French Broad Riverkeeper, Green Riverkeeper, and Watauga Riverkeeper. 
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