The leadership of the Friends of the Fox River, including board members and staff, come from a variety of professions yet are all dedicated to the Fox River and preserving it so it can be enjoyed today and for generations to come.

Meet the Board Members

Gary Swick
President / Educator, FOFR Monitoring Network Director

(Elgin, IL) – I have been a river advocate, whitewater raft guide, and paddler for most of my adult life. As a teacher, I have been using the Fox River as a classroom since joining the Friends in ’91. I am proud to be responsible for over 30,000 students being introduced to their local streams, as Watershed Watchdogs.

Kyla Jacobsen
Kyla Jacobsen
Director, City of Elgin Water Department

Kyla Jacobsen (Elgin, IL) is the Water Director for the city of Elgin. She has been with the Water Department for 30 years. The Fox River, its water quality and protecting the watershed is very important to her since the city of Elgin uses the Fox River as its primary source for drinking water. Kyla is also an avid kayaker and cyclist—spending many hours on and along the river recreating.

Cheryl Crates
Cheryl Crates
Educator, CFO, Adjunct Professor at NIU

I live on the Fox River (Elgin, IL) and have always been an enthusiastic outdoors person. Conservation is required to keep our river viable and our villages healthy. I serve on the Friends of the Fox River Board to give back to the community I live in.

Patrick Kirmse

(Algonquin, IL) – I am a life long resident of the Fox River Valley. I grew up on the river fishing, boating and wading. I watched as the Clean Water Act had a positive impact on the health of the Fox River in the seventies. But I wanted more improvement, less trash, less pollution, clear water not green water. This led me to a B.S. in Biology from N.I.U. and involvement with Friends of the Fox River. I became a board member in 1998. I been involved in planting of thousands Water Willow plants, numerous river rescue clean ups, and supporting our information display at many environmental fairs and events.

Eric Pepa
Architect and Partner, Allen+Pepa Architects

(Elgin, IL) – I am a Friends of the Fox River board member because I feel strongly about the beauty and value the Fox River brings and want to be a part of protecting and promoting the river. It connects hundreds of thousands of people throughout the Fox River Valley, orients them, ties them to nature and provides endless opportunities for fun and joy.

Pat Okonek

I’m an avid outdoorsman I have enjoyed fishing, wading, and floating the Fox River for over 30 years. The Fox provides for countless living creatures, including us. The river is always moving, always changing. But the changes haven’t always been good and the Fox River remains vulnerable to careless and even intentional misuse. Advocacy is needed. That’s why I’m a Friend of the Fox River and a board member of the Friends of the Fox River. I want to protect and preserve this priceless living resource and help everyone recognize and appreciate what a precious resource we all have.

Debbie Bertolami
Supply Chain Capability & Optimization Supervisor, PepsiCo

Giving back to the community which you live and or work in I feel is important these days. In 2013 I was asked by my daughter Victoria who was affiliated with Friends of the Fox to help out with a dam dinner being thrown to raise funds. And should I say the rest is history, so excited to be part of a group of very passionate folks ready to protect our environment. I am here to do my part for my community!

Meet the Staff

Gary Mechanic
Executive Director

I’ve been a paddler since I was a Boy Scout. When I’m paddling a river, I see the results of all the good and bad decisions made upstream, up close. I didn’t know what a sick river was until I paddled a healthy river. It changed my life to understand how my community had abused its local river and that I could do things to help make it healthy again.

Now that I live next to the Fox River, the home of the internationally known Eco-hero “The Fox” (aka Jim Phillips), the opportunity to continue the work he started and Friends of the Fox River has continued is one of the greatest honors and blessings of my life.

LuAnne Lewandowski
LuAnne Lewandowski
Administrative Coordinator

I live approximately 100 feet above the Fox River. I watch its seasons and its ebb and flow. I marvel at its beauty and resilience. I watch bald eagles, geese, hawks, and shorebirds delight above it, around it, and in it. I drag my kayak down the hill to paddle it. I must protect it with all the energy I have.

Cindy Wendt
Cindy Wendt
Outreach Educator

I have always loved the outdoors and related activities, especially being on or near water. Having grown up two blocks from the Fox River at a time when if was treated very poorly and was quite polluted, I am dedicated to instilling awe, respect and responsibility in its future caretakers. I am humbled to be in a position where I can show the wonders of our River and its tributaries to young people and help them learn how to protect its watershed.

Cynthia Kanner
Outreach Educator

I have been volunteer coordinator of the statewide “It’s Our River Day” in Algonquin for nine years and lead an annual kayak outing on The Fox. I love the river and its tributaries, and all the life that’s found within. I really enjoy connecting the public, especially young people, with nature.

Katie Meyer
Katie Meyer
Outreach Educator

My 20+ years of studying and protecting the Fox River watershed began as a conservation student of Friends of the Fox River’s president Gary Swick. He opened my eyes to how the natural world works and I’ve been mesmerized ever since. I’m a naturalist and outreach educator with experiences in sustainable agriculture, ecological restoration, native landscaping, wildlife study, and nature, wellness and STEM programming. Through training with the Department of Natural Resources and more, I monitor turtles, sandhill cranes, snakes, butterflies and moths in Dundee Township.