Hear Me Roar
May 2019 Issue
Photography by Nancy J. Reynolds Photography
Development and Communications Director
St. Simons Land Trust
Photography by Mike Force Photography
Emily Ellison is a self-confessed workaholic, who admits she needs to spend more time participating in her favorite pastimes, nearly all of which are outdoors: gardening, hiking, biking, golfing, and kayaking. Happiest on long walks through forests and countrysides, Emily is a perfect fit with her job title: St. Simons Land Trust Development and Communications Director.
Emily, what is your life’s motto?
Make each corner of the world a little better than the way you found it. It’s something my parents did unconsciously. They transformed landscapes, planted gardens, rescued old houses, and improved communities. As a family we camped and hiked along stony creeks, loved the smell of earth and forest. It’s in my blood. If through my role at the Land Trust I can help in some small way to protect this island, I’m fulfilled.
What are your ties to St. Simons Island?
My husband, Chuck Perry (retired journalist and book publisher), daughter Elli Perry (a singer, songwriter, and musician based in the Southwest) and I owned a getaway near the Coast Guard station, where we spent holidays and as much time during the summer as possible. This was the first beach Elli walked as a toddler, the place where she learned to ride her bike, where she met her future husband. We moved here full time from Atlanta in 2015.
What lines of business have called your name?
It has been a circuitous route, not a straight career path, for sure. Chuck and I met at The Atlanta Newspapers, where I was a reporter for The Constitution, and he was assistant managing editor for The Journal. Later, I published three novels, a couple of children’s books, and co-edited an anthology of contemporary American literature. Then the summer before Elli started the 4th grade, I read an article about research conducted at Harvard by scholars on adolescent girls. The piece described how young girls lose confidence, become anti-intellectual, and begin acquiescing to the boys in co-ed classrooms. “Read it and weep.” The answer: Start a girls’ school, something Atlanta had been without for nearly 50 years. I knew nothing about pedagogy, curricula, independent schools, or raising money. But after months of researching all these things, I hooked up with two wonderful women who did. We wrote a business plan, developed financial projections, formed a board of trustees, raised a few million dollars, secured a site, hired a Head of School, and co-founded the Atlanta Girls’ School. We opened doors in 2000. Alumnae have earned millions in merit scholarships and attended colleges and universities around the world. It was a crash course in nonprofit management, philanthropy, and fundraising. Later, I became President and Executive Director of Atlanta’s Literacy Action, a nonprofit working with undereducated adults. What I thought was my last paid job was serving as CEO of the YWCA of Greater Atlanta.
What types of people inspire you?
Big-hearted, large-minded, passionate, purposeful people. Kind and courageous.
Settling on St. Simons Island, what were your plans?
Retirement! I tossed the business suits and lived in gardening clothes and yoga pants. I began training for the Wainwright Coast to Coast hike across northern England. In 2016, friends and I walked from the Irish Sea to the North Sea, a total of 200 miles across the Lake District and North Yorkshire Moors.
Then, what happened?
David Pope asked if I could fill in for the Land Trust’s development director, who was going on maternity leave. I had zero interest, especially for a three-month stint. Finally, after meeting with staff, I agreed to help temporarily. David would occasionally ask me to consider a permanent position. Again, no interest. But one day, the staff went on a tour of Land Trust properties. I was so moved by what I saw at Cannon’s Point Preserve—the oak rotunda, the north-end ruins—I returned to the office and said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” Thinking about what could have been if people had not saved those 608 acres…I wanted to be part of that important work.
What do you see nowadays?
I see my position at the Land Trust as similar to what my parents always did: Honoring the land, serving the community, thinking about those who come after us, acknowledging the generosity of those who have helped protect what is most precious about this one small barrier island.
I’m Roaring About... Land conservation. Cannon’s Point Preserve changed my life, or at least this phase of my life. It is a truly extraordinary place, a world unto itself. You hear the birds, see the moss hanging from those 300-year-old oaks, watch the pink waves of muhly grass at the shoreline. Rarely another human. No rooftops, no cars. It is heaven.
Contact St. Simons Land Trust: www.sslt.org; 912.638.9109; P.O. Box 24615, St. Simons Island, GA 31522.