Our Staff

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

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 – Community Programs Administrator
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. As Volunteer Development Specialist since 2018, her role continues to expand, becoming full time Community Programs Administrator in Summer 2021. Hilary is excited to continue her work training our invaluable volunteers and integrating them into any number of NBC’s programs that she arranges to preserve, protect, and educate the public about the Upper Newport Bay.

Alys Arenas – Restoration Manager
Originally from Southern California, Alys Arenas is an environmental scientist by training with a background in conservation biology and ecological restoration and monitoring. She has experience in environmental stewardship, project and program management, native plant propagation, rare plant monitoring, working with endangered species, non-native species removal, and utilizing Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for conservation. Alys aims to facilitate conservation and ecological restoration using scientific research to bridge the gap between scientists, the community and stakeholders. Her devotion to protect estuarine, Coastal sage scrub and riparian ecosystems was fostered in academics while dipping her toes in numerous wetlands and environmental nonprofits in southern California throughout her career. Alys joined the Newport Bay Conservancy in 2020 to continue her passion to conserve, protect and advocate for native habitats and open space in southern California. As the Conservancy’s Restoration Manager since 2020, Alys is excited to continue planning and implementing restoration projects around the Bay, monitor and control non-native invasive species and assist in facilitating partnerships between the City, County and State entities. Alys holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental Science & Policy and a Master of Science in Geographic Information Science (MSGISci) from California State University, Long Beach (CSULB).

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. Currently, David is a doctoral student 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.

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 Education 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.