Olivewood Garden’s Staff



Jen Nation

Executive Director

Jen grew up in Iowa where one of her favorite activities was planting and harvesting an annual garden with her family. Jen graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with a bachelor’s degree in non-profit administration and Arizona State University with a master’s degree in Nonprofit Leadership. She has spent the past 20 years working for non-profits in a variety of roles, most recently with Girl Scouts San Diego. Jen values the importance of building an active, healthy and engaged community and hopes to create long-lasting relationships with not only the National City community, but with anyone who wishes to be a part of Olivewood Gardens. In her free time, Jen enjoys traveling, any and all outdoor activities, exploring farmers markets and the local food scene.


Claire Groebner

Associate Director

Claire Groebner is the Associate Director at Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center.  She has a B.A. in Sociology – Social Inequalities and Spanish Literature from UC San Diego.  Prior to Olivewood, Claire worked in a number of different departments at UC San Diego.  Claire’s love for people, nature, and food inspired her to get involved in the food justice and farm-to-table movements, and eventually, with Olivewood Gardens.  In her free time, Claire likes to travel (preferably on foot and with a backpack on), dance, garden, and cook homegrown meals.


Jeni Barajas

Director of Youth Programs

Jeni is the Youth Programs Director at Olivewood Gardens. She is a San Diego native. She attended San Diego State University where she got her BFA in Public Administration. She worked for years in the mortgage industry while volunteering for nonprofits she had a passion for on the side. With support from her family, she left the corporate world to chase her dreams of making the world a better place in the non-profit sector. She has grown food her whole life- as a child, gardening with her family…as an adult, to provide garden knowledge to her two children, to grow food for her own family, and to grow food to donate to her local food pantry. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling, camping, and leading her daughter’s Girl Scout troop.


Patty Corona

Director of Kitchenista Engagement & Cooking for Salud

Patty is the Director of Kitchenista Engagement & Cooking for Salud at Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center. She grew up between Tijuana, Santa Veronica Ranch in Tecate and summers at her grandmother’s ranch in San Pedro, Jalisco. She obtained her B.A in Foreign Trade and Customs at Universidad Iberoamericana del Noroeste in Tijuana. After a year as a volunteer at Olivewood, the Children’s Home Society of California offered her an intensive training about a nutrition curriculum in Spanish, which helped to open the doors to National City community. After becoming a Kitchenista® of the 1st Generation of Cooking for Salud, Patty was highly motivated to have a higher and deeper impact in the community and became a Resident Leadership Academy facilitator. She found her real passion in the combination of teaching about nutrition, cooking and leading the Kitchenistas to become a driving force in the community. Patty loves to eat, cook, drink wine, coffee, talk and be surrounded by the Kitchenistas family. She also likes to travel around Mexico, hiking, connecting with her indigenous roots, and checking things off her bucket list. She really enjoys to spend time at home with her son and daughter as well as laying on the carpet with her jerky dog licking her face.


Leonard Vargas

Director of Gardens & Facilities

Leonard is the Gardens and Facilities Manager at Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center.  He brings more than two decades of professional growing experience in San Diego County, and has been gardening since he was about 2.  He most recently managed operations for Waterwise Botanicals in Bonsall and has overseen growing at Miramar Wholesale Nurseries, HerbThyme Farms, and other local nurseries.  For many years, he managed the urban farm onsite at San Pasqual Academy in Escondido for their resident students.  Leonard is excited to work with students and families here at Olivewood.  He is happiest when his hands are in the soil and looks forward to inspiring and empowering our community to grow both food and flowers.


Ellyse Briand

Events & Culinary Program Specialist

Ellyse has worked within the greater San Diego food community since she moved here in 2015. Originally from Massachusetts, Ellyse has always loved food and large gatherings surrounded by the promise of good food. She holds a B.A. from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell in Psychology but found her real passion was growing food and sharing it with the community. The relationship Olivewood has to the land, the kitchen and the larger community was something she hadn’t seen in San Diego since arriving. Volunteering to teach a fermentation class with the Olivewood Kitchenistas®, she realized that all of her passions were coming together beautifully at Olivewood. Now the Teen & Adult Programs Specialist she can share her knowledge of healthy eating and living while continuing to have a positive impact through food.


Angelica Gastelum

Communications & Marketing Manager

Angelica Gastelum is the Marketing Manager at Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center. A San Diego-Tijuana native, Angelica has over 10 years of experience in Marketing. She has most recently volunteered her time in her children’s school and local church. She loves cooking, reading and traveling. Angelica is a Kitchenista® graduated from the 7th Generation, and is honored and thankful for the opportunity to call Olivewood Gardens, ‘work’ and to be part of such a dedicated staff that share a passion for healthy and sustainable programs. In her spare time she loves hospitality and connecting with friends and family.


Morgan Harris

Youth Nutrition Education Specialist

Originally from Maryland, Morgan first discovered Olivewood through a field trip at San Diego State University where she obtained a B.S. in Foods and Nutrition. She then completed her dietetic internship and obtained her credentials as a Registered Dietitian (RD/RDN). Morgan’s passions lie in both nutrition and environmental education so she was very eager to join the Olivewood team. Morgan is excited to get to know the National City community, share her knowledge of nutrition and engage with the children who visit Olivewood. Morgan also works at a local start-up called SOULMUCH where she bakes cookies using upcycled ingredients from local restaurants! In her free time, Morgan likes to go road tripping, get outside to enjoy the San Diego weather, eat at local restaurants and spend time with friends and family, especially her cat, Basil. 


Sabrina Heimer

School-Based Environmental Education Specialist

After studying Sustainable Agriculture at San Diego City College, Sabrina realized the importance of having fresh, organic food access for all. She volunteered with grassroots organization, Cultivando, to set up sidewalk garden boxes in underserved areas of San Diego. Cultivando, working closely with the Kumeyaay people, planted culturally relevant crops while involving community members. Sabrina’s goal is to own and operate a care farm, a place for struggling youth and young adults to use gardening as a form of therapy. In her free time, she enjoys adventures with her dog, hanging out with friends, crafting, practicing photography and getting her hands dirty in the garden.


Monica Lim

Kitchenista Program Coordinator

Monica Lim is the Kitchenista Program Coordinator at Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center. She graduated from SDSU with a B.A in International Business with emphasis in Latin America. Prior to Olivewood, Monica worked as an International Customer Service Specialist.  Monica got involved in Olivewood Gardens as  a volunteer, thanks to her mother who has inspired her to follow in her footsteps by graduating from The Cooking for Salud® program in the 10th Generation. This inspired Monica to become involved in the community by teaching others the tools to help them be healthy eaters and lead by example.

In her free time, Monica enjoys volunteering at Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center, cooking with Grandma & spending quiet time with her husband and her yellow lab, Cali.


Rocina Lizarraga

Garden Support Specialist

Rocina works at Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center as a Garden Support Specialist, and also supports special projects as by coordinating transit justice and community outreach efforts in collaboration with the San Diego Association of Governments. She is also a 9th Generation Kitchenista®, gardening support staff and a recently elected National School District Board Member trustee. Rocina loves adventures with food, cooking, dancing, sewing, new cultures and friends. She had a wonderful mother and very loving grandparents that taught her the main principles in life: courage, respect, kindness and showing the best of you. Born and raised in Mazatlán, Sinaloa in northwest Mexico, she learned many different ways to adapt to a new life, language, culture and lifestyle when she came to the United States. In her free time she enjoys outdoor adventures like bikes, hiking, picnics and beach outings with her family. She also loves all kinds of music that touches your soul and makes you move with a smile on your face.


Paola Orjuela

Accounting Coordinator

Born and raised in Colombia, Paola is a determined and motivated individual with a B.A. in Business Administration. Paola’s professional path has mainly been focused in hospitality, as she finds it very encouraging to be able to provide assistance and ensure people’s happiness and satisfaction. Serving the community and giving back to those in need is something that Paola values, as she has been supporting multiple organizations through the years who look to serve the community. Something very important to Paola is teaching her 5 year old son to care for and help others!


Mandy Padilla

Environmental Education Specialist

Mandy is the on-site Environmental Education Specialist at Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center. She was born and raised in San Diego, spending much of her childhood exploring the vast and diverse ecosystems of California and developing a love for the outdoors. Fostering this love, she studied cross-cultural environmental practices and volunteered with various conservation groups. Graduating from San Diego State University with distinguished honors, she received a B.A. in Anthropology with a minor in Sustainability. She continues applying her passion for sustainable practices and awareness through outdoor education, inspiring younger generations to continue the path of conservation.


Kelsey Pennington

Youth Programs Coordinator

Kelsey is the Youth Programs Coordinator at Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center. As a California native, she has always been a lover of nature and the outdoors. She received a B.S. in Environmental Studies from UC Santa Barbara. Her passion for transforming the food system in a way that supports both food justice and environmental sustainability drove her to pursue a career in the nonprofit sector and led her to discovering Olivewood. In her free time Kelsey likes to exercise, read, cook, and explore farmers markets and art shows.


Isaac Ramos

Garden Support Specialist

Isaac Ramos began his journey in the biotech field, and quickly realized that instead of finding new medicines to cure disease, we need to revolutionize the way we think about food and what we put in our bodies. After taking a course on hydroponics, he realized he wanted to get more involved with gardening and regenerative agriculture. Working on a ranch in South Mexico, he learned how to make different kinds of compost specific to what they would be used for. Isaac’s personal mission is to learn to live through food sovereignty and regenerative agriculture. He enjoys talking about the mysteries of life, exploring the world and different cultures, and sharing stories in community.


Octavio Rodriguez

Garden Support Specialist

Octavio works as one of the garden support staff at Olivewood. He is a National City native and graduated from Sweetwater Union High School. He currently attends college at City College. In his free time, Octavio likes to spend time with his family. Octavio was a volunteer at Olivewood before joining the staff team.


Sarah Suarez

Volunteer Coordinator

Sarah Suarez is the Volunteer Coordinator at Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center. She is a San Diego native who was first introduced to Olivewood as a Sustainable Urban Agriculture Intern. She received her B.A. in Sustainability with a minor in Spanish from San Diego State University. Sarah’s passion for spreading environmental awareness and the environmental justice movement has inspired her to get involved in community-level outreach. In her free time, Sarah loves to go for runs, travel, and spend quality time with family and friends.


Adan Teposte

Garden Support Specialist

Adan is one of the Gardeners at Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center.  He migrated from Mexico in 1980, and after working for many years in the manufacturing industry in Los Angeles, he moved to San Diego where he gained experience in gardening.  Adan has seen the transformation of the Walton family home gardens into the extensive Gardens we have today, for he has been part of the working team for 11 years! He loves going to the beach in his free time.


Alyssa Zurita

School Garden Specialist

Alyssa is the School Garden Specialist at Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center. She received an A.S. in Retail Nursery and Plant Production from Southwestern Community College in Fall 2020 and is currently attending CSU Cal Poly Pomona where she will receive her B.S. in Plant Science. Alyssa loves working outdoors and enjoys serving the community with Olivewood, especially through Thursday’s weekly harvests. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, camping, working out, crocheting, and spending quality time with her family and pets. She is proud to be part of Olivewood’s team and looks forward to making positive impact in the community through organic gardening.


Alex Montoya

Development Coordinator

Alex is the Development Coordinator at Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center in San Diego. He is also a thought leader who has written nine books – including a children’s one about inclusion. His Alex Montoya Foundation provides education on immigrants and people with disabilities. All of this has come after a successful corporate career with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the San Diego Padres.

Alex earned his Bachelor Degree at the University of Notre Dame and a Master’s from the University of San Francisco. He also has a Personal Development Certification from Harvard, where he has spoken. He has also spoken at Google, NASA, and the Denver Broncos.


Yolanda Bernal

Administrative Assistant

 I am a mother of 3 wonderful humans and I am a passionate being for nature. I enjoy hiking/walking to connect with mother nature. I see my yoga class as my medicine.  Love to be recognized as a Kitchenista, 2nd generation. I’ve enjoyed being a volunteer at Olivewood gardens especially in the compost area.  I have an AA degree from FIDM for marketing/ merchandising. Worked in the fashion industry for many years.


Maya Markillie

Environmental Specialist

Maya is an environmental studies and art graduate with a minor in art history. She has a passion for community engagement, gardening, and environmental stewardship. She most recently worked for AmeriCorps at the Water Resources Education Center in Vancouver, Washington as an environmental education specialist. Maya likes to engage students in creative learning that partners her affection for art and nature. She has community garden and compost management experience and has a passion for outdoor education. In her free time Maya likes to read, make fused glass art, and spend time at the beach.