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Richard Dale and Caitlin Cornwall double-up with two Sonoma County awards this month

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About the Awards

The Jefferson Awards Program is a national recognition system that highlights public service in America. It was created in 1972 by the American Institute for Public Service, a group that included Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, US Senator Robert Taft, Jr., and Sam Beard, staff to Bobby Kennedy.

As well as the local recognition, the Jefferson Award also has national winners, chosen from elected or appointed officials. The most recent is former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, and others include Secretaries of State, Supreme Court Justices and U.S. Senators.

Locally, the program was adopted in 2006 by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to highlight the value of nonprofit organizations, boards, commissions and advisory bodies, as well as individuals.

The Spirit of Sonoma County award is sponsored by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, a consortium of business organizations. Their nomination came from the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce, and again they share the award with others from different parts of the county.

Wider recognition is coming to Richard Dale, co-founder in 1990 of the Sonoma Ecology Center, and his wife Caitlin Cornwall, a biologist who has been with SEC for almost 20 years and is now their director of research. And for many in the city, Valley and county, it’s about time.

“I am so pleased that the work of Richard Dale and Caitlin Cornwall, the ‘power couple’ of Sonoma Valley, is being recognized countywide for the Spirit of Sonoma and prestigious Jefferson Awards,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, in whose 1st District the Sonoma Ecology Center is located and does much of its work.

If they are a power couple, however, they’d probably rather be known as a “clean power” couple. They are the most public personas of the Sonoma Ecology Center, which is taking an increasingly visible role in such community issues as housing, jobs, quality of life, social inequality and environmental health through the recently-launched initiative, Sustainable Sonoma.

“Sustainable Sonoma gathers all interests of community at one table, and works toward a shared vision of the community,” said Cornwall. It grew out of the 25th anniversary of SEC, in 2015, when, she said, “we realized that for all the great things we had accomplished, the bigger indicators of environmental health were not better.”

Cornwall thinks it’s probably Sustainable Sonoma that has brought the pair, and the SEC, its current recognition. Last week they received a Spirit of Sonoma County award from the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, a consortium of business organizations. And this week, at the Dec. 12 Board of Supervisors meeting, they received the Jefferson Award for “excellence in community leadership and civic engagement.”

Dale and Cornwall were selected from over 40 nominees to receive this year’s Sonoma County Jefferson Award. The citation from the Board of Supervisors reads in part, “Richard and Caitlin’s impressive backgrounds have enabled the furtherance of the mission of the Sonoma Ecology Center… With their work we can be assured that future generations will not only enjoy the natural beauty of the Valley, but the children will be educated to become effective and excellent environmental leaders of tomorrow.”

Speaking of children, the clean power couple has one of their own: son Leo, age 10, a student at Sonoma Charter School. The two met when Cornwall joined SEC as a biologist in 1998, started going out in 2002 and were finally married in 2006 – in the spring, at the Van Heusen Wildflower Preserve.

“Our first partnership was very much about the promise and the mission of the Ecology Center,” said Cornwall. “It was a precious thing to find a partner to work on something that we both felt very strongly about. It’s one of those things people don’t often find.”

“We feel there’s a unique opportunity in our Valley to understand things from a broader perspective and to be more collaborative, something we know is needed to solve the huge challenges that face us — not just in Sonoma, but throughout the world,” said Dale. “Hopefully we can advance this vision, together.”

Along with their own personal growth, the SEC has changed, too. It started with greater emphasis on educating children, and fostering volunteer activities around the environment (such as the Sonoma Garden Park). But recently, it’s taken yet another turn with the creation of Sustainable Sonoma – “a recognition of the idea that the big problems facing our community can’t be solved by just one sector of the community,” said Cornwall.

About the Awards

The Jefferson Awards Program is a national recognition system that highlights public service in America. It was created in 1972 by the American Institute for Public Service, a group that included Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, US Senator Robert Taft, Jr., and Sam Beard, staff to Bobby Kennedy.

As well as the local recognition, the Jefferson Award also has national winners, chosen from elected or appointed officials. The most recent is former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, and others include Secretaries of State, Supreme Court Justices and U.S. Senators.

Locally, the program was adopted in 2006 by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to highlight the value of nonprofit organizations, boards, commissions and advisory bodies, as well as individuals.

The Spirit of Sonoma County award is sponsored by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, a consortium of business organizations. Their nomination came from the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce, and again they share the award with others from different parts of the county.

Gorin noted that while Sonoma Valley has long been the beneficiary of the SEC’s work on stream restoration, wetlands, climate change and ecology issues, more recently their work has broadened to include tree plantings, planning for the future of the Sonoma Developmental Center and the creation of Sustainable Sonoma.

“Sustainable Sonoma is the model that should be replicated all over the County and North Bay,” said Gorin. “This truly is the direction that is part of our present and future.”

The partners in Sustainable Sonoma include the SEC as well as the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, La Luz Center, Sonoma Valley Health Roundtable, Sonoma Health Action, the Sonoma County Health Services Department and the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce.

The council of these bodies has met only once, just before the October fires side-tracked their efforts; they plan to meet again after the first of the year, and continue their work toward a shared vision of the Sonoma Valley community.

Their role is to uncover areas of agreement among their various interests, said Cornwall, and to work on making change in those areas. “Everyone is aware of the menu of big issues facing our community – the affordability crisis, the identity crisis between tourism local quality of life; inequalities, open space protection versus private property development with SDC – these are deeply complicated problems that call for a new level of conversation.”

More recently, the Sonoma Ecology Center has taken on the challenge of containing the toxic ash generated by the fires, which destroyed 375 structures in Glen Ellen alone, including 183 homes, and more in Kenwood. Their Emergency Watershed Protection Program locates burned properties that connect to creeks, ditches or culverts, uses wattles and other containment methods to hold back the ash until it can be removed, lest it spill into the waterways and add toxins – sulfates, nitrates, asbestos and heavy metals.

At Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, following Gorin’s tribute to Cornwall, Dale and the Ecology Center, a number of representatives from the county agencies that the SEC works with came up to have their picture taken with the pair – including Regional Parks, the Open Space District and the Water Agency.

“It was nice,” said Cornwall. “Now our job is to fulfill the hope expressed by the award, and make Sustainable Sonoma a real success. And hopefully change the future of our community for the better.”

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.