Our Staff

Newport Bay Conservancy staff works alongside our Board of Directors and our partners at the Bay. Contact us if you want to collaborate.

Join us as a part-time seasonal Outdoor Activity Leader to inspire young minds during this fall’s Fostering Interest in Nature overnight camp for 5th grade students. Learn all about the program and apply at: newportbay.org/FiiN


Heather Cieslak – Operations Director
heather.cieslak@newportbay.orgCieslak.Heather Portrait
Heather Cieslak grew up in Illinois and moved to California after graduating from Northern Illinois University with a BA in Marketing. Previously, Heather was the Finance and Operations Manager with Amigos de los Rios, a nonprofit committed to protecting and restoring open space in urban environments, specifically in East LA County. Prior to that, Heather spent a number of years as Associate Director with National Assistance League, responsible for marketing, fundraising and administration to support their 125 chapters nationwide. Also while at NAL, she pursued her MPA in Nonprofit Organizational Management from California State University Northridge.  As our Operations Director since 2013, Heather ensures programs and activities are part of an overall annual plan and supporting budget, that they are well-managed, and that we are actively marketing and communicating our mission and activities to our community.

Hilary Cunningham – Education Manager
Hilary Cunningham spent many childhood afternoons sitting in her parents’ avocado tree. Her love of nature was later reinforced on family vacations to botanical gardens and on school trips to AstroCamp, Catalina Island, and Olympic National Park. Inspired by these experiences and by her high school biology teacher, she went on to study Plant Biology at UC Irvine. But she was always fascinated by many other subjects too and ended up staying at UCI for a decade to obtain a B.S. in Plant Biology, a B.F.A. in Dance Performance, a B.A. in Anthropology, a minor in Linguistics, and an M.A. in Cognitive Science. After gaining experience managing volunteers and staff at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, her desire to get back into nature brought her to Newport Bay Conservancy in 2017. Originally brought on to oversee the volunteer program, her role has continued to expand, becoming Education Manager in 2024. Hilary is excited to continue her work training our invaluable volunteers, integrating them into our programs, and managing educational staff and programming to preserve, protect, and educate the public about the Upper Newport Bay.

Chris Fabela – Habitat Restoration Coordinator
With a passion for community engagement and continuing education, Chris eagerly combines the efforts of volunteers, contractors, and stakeholders to protect the essential resource that is the Upper Newport Bay as the Conservancy’s Habitat Restoration Coordinator. Born and raised in Orange County, Chris grew up with a deep connection to wilderness recreation. Through childhood trips to his great-grandparents’ farm in the central valley to camping trips with family along the coast, he developed knowledge and respect for the state’s diverse climates, environments, and cultures. Chris attended California State University, Long Beach, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, and after years working as a graphic designer, he made the pivotal transition into a career in environmental sciences. He went back to school and earned a Technical Certificate in Ecological Restoration from Saddleback College. Through this program, he first began volunteering at the Bay with Project Grow. From there, Chris began working in the private sector as a wildlife biologist, restoration technician, stormwater inspector, construction foreman, and assistant project manager. Now, Chris is back at the Bay and excited to show that there is a place for everyone who wants to get their hands dirty and stay involved here.

David Banuelas – Habitat Restoration Technician II
Born and raised in Southern California, David formed a close connection with the outdoors at an early age, influencing him to pursue environmental science at Whittier College. After receiving his BA, he worked for the Bureau of Land Management conducting large-scale restoration projects. While pursuing his master’s degree in Regenerative Studies at Cal Poly Pomona, David was the inaugural Farm to School Coordinator for the Upland Unified School District. David received his PhD in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology program at UC Irvine. He is poised to translate his research into novel management strategies to control invasive plants species in the Upper Newport Bay and beyond.

Randall English – Habitat Restoration Technician II
Randall originally came to the bay via corporate volunteering and found a place where his love of the environment and love of kayaking presented a rewarding opportunity to give back to society. His focus shifted to restoration volunteering when kayaking tours were shut down for a spell. In 2021 he enrolled in Saddleback College’s Ecological Restoration certificate program to become more self-reliant and effective in the field. Halfway through the program Randall decided to change careers and become a professional restorationist. Randall previously worked for over thirty years in information technology as a programmer, business systems analyst and technical project manager supporting manufacturing and distribution processes.

Claire Phillips – Habitat Restoration Technician
Claire’s roots in Omaha, Nebraska instilled in her a deep appreciation for the diverse landscapes ranging from prairies to oak forests, river valleys, and expansive wetlands. This connection to nature has reinforced a deep respect for all living things and inspired her to pursue a degree in Environmental Science & Policy with a minor in Geology, at California State University, Long Beach. Claire’s hands-on experience in wetland restoration, native plant cultivation, monitoring of endangered species, and her involvement in animal rehabilitation have enriched her interests of ecology and wildlife conservation. These experiences have shaped her environmental philosophy and values, and she is excited to support the Newport Bay Conservancy’s mission.

Mariah Sabo – Education Specialist
Mariah’s innate love of nature and conservation stems from her childhood in local Silverado Canyon. While she spent most of her time playing in creeks and the nearby forest, she was ultimately drawn to marine life. At a 5th grade outdoor camp in Catalina Island, she realized her dream of becoming a marine biologist. She fulfilled this dream when she graduated from Cal State University, Fullerton with a degree in Biological Science, Marine Biology Concentration, BS. Following graduation, Mariah began her career as a marine naturalist interpreter for the City of Newport Beach. She first became involved with Newport Bay Conservancy when she became an Outdoor Activity Leader for the FiiN program in September 2022. Her passion for environmental education landed her a permanent position as the education specialist at NBC in December 2022. She looks forward to using the bay’s natural resources to educate all who are willing to learn.

Alex Sasikumar – Outdoor Activity Leader
Alex (she/her) first connected with nature on her 5th-grade end-of-year camping trip to Point Reyes in Northern California. Even in urban San Francisco, she found ways to explore the little pockets of nature all around her: Land’s End Trail in San Francisco and the American River Confluence among some of her favorites. Her curiosity eventually took her beach camping in Kona, Periyar Nature Reserve and the backwaters in India, and rock climbing limestone cliffs in Thailand. She’s an educator by trade and when she’s not substitute teaching for SAUSD or romping around the back bay with her dog Billie, she’s cozy at home collaging or repurposing curbside finds. She hopes to take everything she learns about environmentalism and apply it to the classroom in hopes of inspiring the next wave of nature lovers.

Isabelle Beltran – Outdoor Activity Leader
Isabelle first remembers learning about nature while watching nature documentaries with her grandpa. As she grew up she learned more about nature firsthand by going on hikes and bike rides in local parks and trails. With her love of science and nature, she decided to major in Biology at UC Irvine eventually earning her bachelor’s degree. During her senior year at UCI she was lucky enough to join the College Corps program allowing students to volunteer for local organizations. This is when she first got involved with Newport Bay Conservancy and she began doing outreach events such as Community Day at Back Bay Science Center. Once she graduated she began working in the FiiN program as an activity leader. Since then she has continued to work in outreach and education at Newport Bay Conservancy.

Damian Pizano – Outdoor Activity Leader
Born and raised in Southern California, Damian is a passionate Outdoor Activity Leader dedicated to empowering students through adventure and exploration. Growing up in LA County, Damian remembers the monotony of the suburban environment around him and as such, believes it is important to build a connection with nature. In the last year of his undergraduate career at UCI, Damian got involved with the FiiN program and fell in love with the bay, from the land around it to the community that preserves it. Working with Newport Bay Conservancy, Damian leads members of the community through hands-on activities and planned tours to educate the community and grow its appreciation for the outdoors.