Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Working for a ?better place?

Vanessa Crossgrove-Fry prepares to take over Smart Growth

view entire series

Express Staff Writer

Vanessa Crossgrove-Fry will look for a holistic approach to planning when she joins the staff at Citizens for Smart Growth as the new executive director. Photo by Chris Pilaro

Third in a series

There are numerous nonprofit organizations in the Wood River Valley. Each has a reason for being, and each has supporters and volunteers who work tirelessly to raise money and make people aware of their causes while helping those in need.

Few people work harder than the directors of these organizations. Often, they are underpaid and answer to a board of many. It's a challenge, but not without its fulfillment.

Here is the third in a series of articles profiling people who run nonprofit organizations in the Wood River Valley.

Almost five years ago, Vanessa Crossgrove-Fry only knew two people in Blaine County. But she moved here from upstate New York, with her beau, Jason Fry, anyway. All this even though her intent had been to go to graduate school in Missoula, Mont.

They were both hired to work at separate nonprofit organizations and were immediately seen as rare gifts to the community. Young, impassioned and committed, their resumes are impressive. They grew up two miles apart in Ohio and went to the same college, Wittenberg University. An avid runner, she was named most valuable runner on her cross-country team three times. Fry has a masters in sports psychology from Ithaca University. Crossgrove-Fry studied with Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology, the Institute of Environmental Studies, taught coral reef ecology in Key West, Fla., and with Fry led wilderness therapy groups in Utah.

In 2002, Crossgrove-Fry became the Environmental Resource Center's first AmeriCorps volunteer, and Fry became the production specialist at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts. The two have since moved on to different jobs, but their initial burst of nonprofit involvement has not dwindled. In 2004, Fry became the program director for Wood River YMCA.

When Crossgrove-Fry's year as an AmeriCorps volunteer ended, the ERC hired her to become the director of development. In 2004, she landed the same position with the Snake River Alliance and on Nov. 8, she will begin work as the new executive director of Citizens for Smart Growth.

Most people don't make these kinds of moves in 10 years. It just shows how forward-looking and respected she is considered. In fact, she was recruited for both the Snake River Alliance job and the Smart Growth position.

In 2004, when Crossgrove-Fry joined Snake River Alliance, the fight to include Idaho in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act was heating up. The organization has been vocal and effective in getting both Idaho Sens. Crapo and Craig to support the addition of affected parts of Idaho for RECA compensation.

Crossgrove-Fry said she was especially shocked when she read that, at the time of the testing in the 1950s, an Atomic Energy Commission report characterized the soon-to-be-contaminated downwinders as "a low-use segment of the population."

"It drew me in and showed me how our government works for the few at the people's expense," she said.

Crossgrove-Fry's vivid blue eyes beam when she gets worked up, and thinking about disparity is a hot topic. It's this enthusiasm for policy, for involvement and enacting positive change that is keeping her employed.

As for Citizens for Smart Growth, the way Crossgrove-Fry tells it, she did the interviewing rather than the other way around.

"I was really interested in taking on more than a development position. It's important with a nonprofit that the board empowers the director. An executive director is the face of the organization. The board can empower or use the executive as a pawn. I wanted to make sure it was the right fit. I feel very supported. There's a lot of heart and integrity there.

"I am so flattered that they looked to me for this position. Instead of hiring a résumé (they wanted to) hire a person and what they're going to bring to this organization. I really believe in that approach."

Smart Growth board President Doug Abromeit gave Crossgrove-Fry a healthy endorsement.

"Smart Growth is dedicated to land-use decisions that enhance the character of our towns by making them more walkable and kid-friendly, and decisions that retain the character of our county by preserving its open space and protecting its environmentally sensitive areas.

"I know that Vanessa will provide the leadership and the skills as the executive director of Smart Growth to help all of us that care about Blaine County and the Wood River Valley achieve those objectives."

At the same time, Crossgrove-Fry returned to school.

While remaining a full-time employee, six days a week for nearly a year she commutes to San Francisco to attend the Presido School of Management where she is studying sustainability management. She will earn her masters in December 2007.

"Presido's original notion is that sustainability is profitable," she said. "It's the integrated bottom line approach. The program is extremely diverse. Making the decision to go to Presidio is one of the best decisions I ever made in life."

The other big decision is yet to play out. Since she doesn't start her job with Smart Growth for another week, Crossgrove-Fry is cramming for more than her schoolwork. The organization began in 1997 as a loosely organized group of citizen volunteers led by Steve Wolper, who attended city meetings where, for the most part, the attendees were developers with lawyers. The concept was to be a reasoned alternative voice for the people on land use and growth in Blaine County.

Over the years, there are more and varied groups that have different opinions about the issues.

"Everybody and everything is affected by a decision," Crossgrove-Fry said. "Everyone deserves to be a voice at the table. So how can we take a holistic approach? What are the values and visions of the stakeholders?

"I look forward to working with all the groups," she continued. "I think people have a feeling of how the valley should feel, not just look. In the long run, I truly believe we are all working together to make this a better place. It's to preserve and protect. Change can be good. Do we want to restore and revitalize? That happens through change, and it takes creative thinking. It will take time and patience."

Being a two-non-profit-employed couple, as are the Frys, is not for the impatient.

"Financially, we're not raking in the dough," she said. "But we're so thankful for where we live and where we work. Jason loves what he's helping to create. I love giving back. When you give to the community it gives back. A smile is infectious."

She smiled broadly, blue eyes beaming.

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