Introducing the 2014 AMS Fellows 


Aaron Burkholder

Aaron Burkholder dreams of garlic, cheese, and, one day, building a home on a farm here in the mountains of Appalachia. He grew up in Rockingham County, VA, where he was strongly influenced by the gardens and cooking of his parents and grandparents, and attended West Virginia University, where he studied geography and worked for the Division of Plant and Soil Sciences. Aaron brings a knowledge of local geography and forest plants and animals (namely salamanders and snakes) appreciated by all at AMS. Conducting fieldwork and assisting students while working at WVU affirmed his passions for working outdoors and experiential education opportunities as well as learning and teaching experientially. While working in the field, just a mountain or two over near Bartow, WV, Aaron realized just how far he had to travel for food and got to thinking about how far food had to travel to get to the place that was so far to get to. Egged on by great writers from Pollan (“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”) to Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), Aaron adopted a veggie-heavy locavore diet and left his job to move up to the mountain. He is thrilled to spend his days cultivating vegetables, hiking in the woods, and sharing his love of cooking and food with the community here in Highland County and beyond. Additionally, his Chaco tan has never looked this good.

Nick Faircloth

I am a suburban kid turned crunchy.

My story starts on the coast of Delaware in a rural community. I grew up loving the taste of salt dried to sun-burnt skin and the smell of low tide. I was surrounded by agriculture, but I didn’t take much notice of it. To me, farms meant highways lined by tall corn stalks and sweet corn kernels stuck between teeth on summer evenings.

I was taught to love and appreciate the outdoors, however, and this love for the natural world and the desire to explore and understand it were the first pushes that, ultimately, have me here writing this bio. I attended the University of Delaware and studied English, Economics, Ecology and everything in between. Eventually, I started to understand that I was happiest when I was working to strengthen my connection with the Earth and my community.

In my life, my love for the Earth has been realized through agriculture. I’ve pursued agricultural learning since my graduation in 2012, working for farmers and farmers’ markets and involving myself in community food groups. I cherish the deeper understanding of life that I have found just under the surface of the Earth’s soil. I love watching life manifest itself in front of my eyes. And, I believe that food is love and love is a bonding agent that can heal the deepest social divisions and unite a group of people into a community.

While at AMS, I aim to continue my learning and growing as a community member and agricultural steward. I want to learn as much as possible about growing food, about cooking food, and about interacting with others in an open, community setting. And beyond AMS? I wish to carry this wonderful, pure way of life with me and share it with whoever wants a slice. There’s plenty to go around.

Thea Klein-Mayer

Thea was born in Washington DC—a city she loves for its culture, greenness, and walkability. Her parents raised she and her sister in a supportive, creative environment, with help from wonderful set of extended family, friends, and teachers. She moved to Chicago to attend Northwestern University, where she studied environmental science and engineering design, developed an even stronger love of the outdoors, and worked in Wild Roots (an NU campus vegetable garden). Upon graduating, she joined the small but mighty staff of Design for America—an organization aimed at impacting local communities using human-centered design—and while she enjoyed the work and the energetic, passionate crowd surrounding it, she felt increasingly drawn away from flat city-life, nine-to-fives, and long commutes. Giving in to wanderlust, she embarked on a period of travel that culminated in a three-month stay in Argentina. There, she lived and tagged along with members of her extended family and friends, cooked daily, and got to be very good at communicating with fruit and vegetable vendors.

She found out about AMS in Argentina, while looking for opportunities to blend science, design, being outside, and sustainable living. AMS’ mission and goals represented much of what she was feeling in that moment about the importance of food, community, and mindfulness. She is overwhelmingly happy to be part of such a vibrant, caring cohort here in the mountains of Highland County. Throughout her time at AMS and after, she hopes to spark others to seek, grow, and prepare wholesome, local produce and to live fully wherever they may be.

Emily Lawrence

I grew up in Boulder, Colorado and have lived there for most of my life. As a kid I enjoyed being outdoors and learning about nature. In middle school, I started to run track and cross country competitively. Distance running got me interested in nutrition so I started eating more organic foods and fresh produce.

I attended Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA where I studied Environmental Science. I had the privilege of going on many field trips to commercial farms around Pennsylvania. It was very eye-opening to see food being treated as if it was just another product on an assembly line.

We also visited Dickinson’s organic farm. On our first field-trip there, I fell in love. This farm had livestock and vegetables living healthy, happy lives in harmony with one another. This style of agriculture felt a lot more natural to me. I never had the chance to work on the farm because of my competitive running career, but the experience made a lasting impression on me and sparked my interest in organic farming.

About a year after graduation, I volunteered at a farm called Red Wagon Organic Farm in Boulder. The time I spent there every week was like heaven to me. However, I did not try to get a full-time farming position right away because I was worried it would not pay enough. After spending 10 months working at an environmental consulting company in Denver, I realized that money wasn’t worth a long commute and long days in front of the computer. I knew that if I could learn to grow my own food and live with others in a community my quality of life would be better.

I found a great position at Frog Belly Farm in Boulder and had the opportunity to work there for a year and half. Frog Belly Farm has 28 milking goats, 50 chickens, 30 pigs and five acres of vegetable gardens including one grow dome and two hoop houses. I was involved with every aspect of the farm, from milking the goats to cleaning the chicken coop to selling produce at the farmers’ market. I truly enjoyed working at Frog Belly Farm and would not have traded that experience for the world. When I heard about AMS, I decided that it would be the perfect place to expand my farming knowledge.

My goal is to someday have my own organic farm that will sustain my family and a small CSA. I hope that my farm can be a place people can visit and learn about growing food. I want to inspire others to start their own gardens or farms and help change the way we think about food. Allegheny Mountain School has created a program that is working to change the way we relate to our food in the Shenandoah Valley and I am very excited to be a part of it.

Kelly Lecko

Besides my own little brother, I grew up as the only vegetarian kid around. The two of us explained to new friends every year what it meant to be vegetarian, and why our parents decided not to eat meat. I suppose this is where my career as an educator began, and my passion for food awakened. Little did I know that over a decade later I would be part of an exciting program training me to be precisely that- a leader and educator advocating for local food systems! But I am getting ahead of myself in this story. Don’t you want to know how I decided that Virginia was the place to be? I did grow up in California, after all….

You see, even though I stood by my parents’ choice to be vegetarian, my passion for food really bloomed in college. I was exposed to cooking, community meals, and farmers markets, supplementing my studies as an environmental scientist. On the flip side, I was also exposed to the problems within our food cultures and food systems both through my studies as well as travel opportunities abroad. Post-graduation, I became an educator at an outdoor education center where I ate my meals with student groups and felt my heart strings pulled every time a child told me that they had never had a home-cooked meal or eaten around the table with their family. Through my work as an environmental educator I began to focus more formally on food-education because I found I could connect to my students through food, they could connect to the natural environment through food, and in this way I could make relevant my lessons on environmental stewardship. Therefore I feel that the AMS program is such a wonderful fit for me! I look forward to not only learning about farms and gardens, bees and worms, but also the leadership skills I will add to my toolbox. I am hoping to emerge from AMS with a stronger background in living close to the land so that I can then bring my drive for sustainability and healthy communities together with my passion for teaching.

Shannon Mathews

I grew up in a little city on the east coast, called Philadelphia. Maybe you’ve heard of it; it’s a bustling place with plenty of personality. I took any opportunity I could to climb trees, make a mud and insect stew in the park, or explore the sparse but intriguing wooded areas around the city. I always felt a strong kinship when surrounded by the natural world and maybe it held a bit of mystery too, while usually being immersed in an urban landscape. I wanted everyone, including myself to understand our relationship with it.

In college, I loved creating and decided to study film and media at Temple University. So, I can’t say I exactly saw my life leading here to a fellowship that brings together such things as gardening, local food culture, and community like AMS. I hadn’t spent much time around farm life aside from my grandpa raising chickens in his little backyard, in Philly.

It was after graduating, that I finally got my hands and feet in the dirt with the purpose of growing food. I went to teach in Thailand for a year, and during the summer break I experienced farming with the ebb and flow of nature when I joined a farm starting a permaculture project in the mountains. It wasn’t only what I learned there, but the sense of community in the town and most of the other places I spent my time in the country, that sparked some desire in me as well.

The short time on the farm wasn’t enough to learn what needs to be known, and when I returned home I found myself searching for work with farming, food systems, or anything helping our community and environment. AMS revealed itself at a fateful time in my transitioning life, and I’m pretty grateful to be able to learn and work at the intersection of nature, food, and community. I hope to to take with me enough wisdom to spread to additional communities in the future, and to bring a closer-to-nature lifestyle to urban communities that allows for more local, healthier food in cities. I would like to free people from a disconnected lifestyle, not only by teaching techniques and processes of gardening, but by encouraging people to feel more connected to nature and themselves. I want to trigger the same hunger that was triggered in me to live closer in harmony with the land and food we eat.

Emily Sullivan

I am from Sioux City, Iowa. I never farmed there. During my final year of college at The University of Iowa, after being actively involved in several student organizations, a good friend invited me to the Student Garden. At the garden I realized several things; being outdoors is much more interesting than being indoors, weeding is more fulfilling than meetings, and sharing good food with people is one of my favorites things.

During my final semester of college I was able to volunteer on a small farm in northeast Alabama. After this brief introduction I decided I must learn more about farming. I found a full-season farming internship in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania at Hemlock Creek CSA, a small-scale organic vegetable operation. My time spent there taught me a ton about organic farming and how to work hard. After the internship ended I moved to Chicago to be a bit closer to home and check out the urban farming scene.

In Chicago I was able to work a wonderful, small, local coffee shop in Bridgeport called Jackalope Coffee & Tea. At Jackalope I was a part of a small community and I especially enjoyed talking to regulars and making the perfect espresso drink.  Part of my time here was spent at Growing Power Chicago, where I was able to employ my new farming knowledge and came to the decision that urban farming is not for me.

From my experiences I have realized that not only do I love working with my hands, I also love interacting with people and talking about food. While at AMS I hope to gain the skills to one day have my own farm that can also act as an educational resource for farming and food.

Samantha Taggart

It’s safe to say by now that I have caught a full-on case of the “farming bug” and I’m apt to have it for life. And for that, I couldn’t be happier.  Farming – especially the kind of farming we’re doing up here at AMS – is such rewarding, fulfilling, and (quite literally) grounding work. At the end of each day we find ourselves feeling tired and accomplished as well as a bit closer to understanding the beautiful intricacies of Earth’s many cycles.

I grew up in Arlington, VA amidst the hustle and bustle of the DC Metropolitan area. Growing vegetables in front yards was actually forbidden by our condo association, however my mom has always kept a lovely front stoop garden of potted herbs, lettuces, flowers, and even the occasional illicit tomato plant. It was only recently, however, that I discovered my love for gardening.

For the past four years I have been in Charlottesville, VA earning my undergraduate degree at the University of Virginia. I graduated in May with a Bachelors of Arts in Environmental Thought and Practice, an interdisciplinary major that encourages students to look at environmental issues from a sundry of perspectives. My major allowed me to explore the ethical as well as environmental dimensions of our current food crisis and develop a more robust understanding of what’s going on in modern industrial agriculture. While at U.Va., I managed a one-acre student garden on Morven Farm. The garden was entirely student-run and we used crop rotation, polyculture, drip irrigation, and organic compost in an attempt to produce a sustainable food system that builds soils rather than depletes them. Morven is where I first stuck my hands in that good ol’ Virginia soil and wound up catching the farming bug. In addition to the satisfaction that came from growing a healthy crop, it was so incredibly fulfilling to witness students, who may have never had any experience gardening, fall in love with dirt, earthworms, root systems, and vegetables, just as I have.

As an AMS Fellow, I hope to become an agricultural steward of the earth and learn how to carry out the values of community, healing, interconnectedness, and love in the ways we interact with each other and with the Earth.

Kazimir Berman

I began to to garden shortly after learning to walk, and remember spending hours outside with my parents in the garden. We grew much of our own food and I felt very connected to the energy of the earth which sustains us. A Waldorf education introduced me to the discipline of  Rudolf Steiner’s  system of Biodynamics, and my classmates and I grew food in our school garden as a main component of our curriculum. After high school I went to study at the University of Oregon and majored in Environmental Science followed by studying coastal ecology in Costa Rica. I developed a deep curiosity for the sea and seafaring and spent many months sailing from South Africa to the Caribbean. Countless hours in the ocean observing sea life helped me understand the similarities between terrestrial and aquatic life and our impact as humans on both. Traveling has inspired me to see the world holistically and to recognize that there is so much to learn from the natural patterns and processes of nature. I have learned many lessons from the people of various cultures that I have been able to meet. From the  Masai in Kenya I learned of their deep connection to the earth and all life. I have been inspired by the natives of the Peruvian highlands and Amazon rain forests and their comprehensive knowledge of flora and fauna.

An introduction to yoga and meditation encouraged me to seek further  personal health and well being learning healing modalities such as Chi Gong, massage, Watsu, breath work, Ayurveda and herbalism. I believe that by incorporating meditation, introspection and contemplation as well as modalities for wellness such as an understanding of how our bodies work based on nutrition as well as using bodywork, exercise, herbalism together in our daily lives, we will  automatically contribute towards self sustainability . Through this we will naturally become more aware of the key variables which sustain our lives.  Our awareness of the need for clean air, clean water and clean food and the sustainable systems which encourage their preservation and integrity are a natural extension of this way of living. By learning to grow food responsibly and sustainably at AMS I am inspired to learn to create sustainable systems in our communities and on the planet which contribute to environmental and individual well being and abundance which is an important part of my life.





Find out about the events, workshops, farming and life as an AMS Fellow.

Allegheny Mountain School (AMS) is a project of The Highland Center, located in Monterey, Virginia. It’s mission is to serve all citizens of Highland County by being a catalyst for cultural and economic development, and to preserve a historic landmark as a symbol of unity and community pride. [Read More]

Story.Dawn1 Read about this season’s workshops and instructors.


Allegheny Mountain School PartnersPhase II of the AMS Fellowship is spent working for a non-profit for one year.

In 2014, AMS Senior Fellows will be working for these organizations in our region focused on local food, conservation and strengthening communities.

City Schoolyard Garden
Project Grows
New Community Project
Valley Conservation Council
Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind

Set your Twitter account name in your settings to use the TwitterBar Section.