The Quechee-based Vermont Institute of Natural Science (VINS), a staple of the local community and a refuge for human and animal alike for many years, recently welcomed a new face to its team of 24 full-time and 8 part-time employees: Alden Smith.

Chair of the VINS Board of Trustees, Jack Lee, said in a press release in early April, “After a comprehensive search, we chose Alden Smith from a slate of strong candidates. We are delighted to welcome Alden as VINS’ new executive director and are confident that he will maintain the organization’s excellent reputation in the Upper Valley and beyond while also expanding our reach and impact.”

Alden Smith, VINS’ new executive director

Smith, a graduate of Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English, has spent a great deal of his career in New England. He takes the reins from executive director emeritus, Charles (Charlie) F. Rattigan, who joined VINS a decade ago and led the organization through a period of impressive developments, such as the award-winning, ADA-accessible Forest Canopy Walk.

Smith recognizes the caliber of talent that precedes his tenure and admires the crucial work that has been accomplished in recent years.

“Charlie, [former assistant executive director] Mary Graham, and the entire VINS team have done an amazing job preserving what is inherently special about the organization and, at the same time, stepping confidently into the unknown of the future,” Smith says.

Smith began his work as executive director in early April and is more than ready to embark on the adventure that is taking up the helm of a vibrant environmental education nonprofit.

As the latest director of VINS, Smith will wear many hats on a day-to-day basis: chief strategist, fundraiser, educational leader, and operational manager, just to name a few. But above all else, being executive director comes down to being a great leader – which Smith has valuable insight into and brings to this new role.

“A great leader is a connector and collaborator, authentic in both one-on-one encounters and group settings. They help others belong by inspiring them to contribute in unique and gratifying ways,” Smith says. “Equal treatment of others is not enough: great leaders focus strategically on equity, and they pay special attention to those in their organization who are doing the essential, often unseen, work that makes the mission truly come alive.”

Alden Smith teaching an English class at the Mountain School of Milton Academy in Vershire, where he was the director for twenty years prior to his transition to VINS.

How did Smith find himself on the path to this particular role, you may ask?

Drawn to VINS because of its critical mission to motivate people to take active steps to protect and rehabilitate nature, Smith also highlights the compelling origin story and development of the organization as part of the draw.

“VINS was born of citizens getting together around the time of the first Earth Day in 1970 to clean up the nearby polluted Ottauquechee River. They were so successful, not to mention so connected, that they kept inspiring healing within the watershed community,” he says.

As the new executive director, one goal Alden Smith has is to continue to provide programming for youth at VINS.

Smith arrives at VINS after two decades of leading an organization of similar size and mission with deep roots and strong ties to nature and the positive ways in which we interact with it – The Mountain School of Milton Academy in Vershire, Vermont (a clever portmanteau of Vermont and its neighbor state). The Mountain School is a unique semester program for high school juniors located on a hilltop farm that is steeped in communal culture and the value of becoming attuned to all that is going on in the great outdoors.

As the former director of an educational institution that is committed to fostering the intentional care of people, place, and earth systems, it makes a great deal of sense why Smith was interested in making the jump over to VINS.

Charlie Rattigan, VINS’ executive director emeritus.

“I definitely look at this new role through an educator’s lens,” he says. “For example, I love witnessing how intergenerational families experience the canopy walk differently from one another. The children may prioritize play and adventure and dive into the spider web, while their caregivers give pause and look to the signs along the boardwalk to learn something new about the forest.”

So, with a new executive director leading the charge, surely VINS must be working on exciting new things?

Smith can confirm that the nonprofit is currently working on improving their research methodologies. Also, with a limited amount of time and human hands to meet the steadily growing demand for their offerings, VINS is also brainstorming creative ways to create a more lasting impact on students and youth of all ages.

Some things remain status quo as they should, such as the world class care that the talented staff provide to the numerous avian residents and ambassadors that call campus home: falcons, eagles, owls, and even native, wild songbirds.

With “chief strategist” as one of the many hats he wears, however, Smith is of course actively looking towards the future of VINS and forging the path that the organization will follow moving forward.

“We are working on a strategic plan to determine the next great milestone for VINS. It’s important to me that everyone (staff, the Board of Trustees, volunteers) has a role in determining what comes next,” Smith says. “This means that they all need to know that their voice matters; they have a seat at the table. In my first year, we are building trust and habits of collaboration that will make everyone feel included.”

The Canopy Walk, opened in 2019, is one of the many beloved exhibits for visitors to enjoy at VINS.

To Smith’s delight, VINS is a living, breathing example of the kind of work that he has grown to love and cherish over the years in the education space.

“I admire the ways that VINS is different from any other organization I know and look forward to ensuring that it continues to serve the needs of a community that could always use further education, hope, and healing,” he remarks. “The world needs the mission of VINS now more than ever, along with the inspiration for all who want cleaner rivers, more diverse forests, and healthier wildlife. My hope is to build VINS into an even more impactful force for good, for our Quechee-based community and beyond.”