Colleen O'Neil

Communications Specialist

Hi, I'm Colleen, the Communications Specialist at MWA!

I'm a Laurel Highlands native -- I grew up playing in the woods and dipping my toes in the Yough. My favorite Pennsylvania bird is the screech owl, my native favorite flower is the painted trillium and my number one amphibian is the hellbender. 

I’ve always loved being outside. As a kid, Girl Scout camp was the absolute highlight of my summer. Sleeping in a tent, waking up to birdsong, and playing outside all day was my ideal lifestyle. In high school I became a competitive cross-country runner, and I trained on the trails in Ohiopyle State Park as often as I could. I loved the smell of wet dirt and the sun filtering through the trees. The rest of my time I devoted to reading books and writing stories of my own. 

Writing and running led me to the College of Wooster in Ohio, where I studied English and competed on the cross-country and track teams. In my sophomore year, I landed an internship with The Allegheny Front, a public radio program that covers environmental news in the Pittsburgh area. 

Spending a summer at The Allegheny Front opened my eyes to the plethora of issues plaguing the Laurel Highlands. (We've really got it all, from industrial pollution to deforestation.) This internship inspired me to study journalism and environmental issues in my last two years at Wooster. 

After graduation, I took a job as a photographer at a newspaper in the Colorado mountains. My partner and I packed our lives into my tiny car and moved out west. There, I discovered mountain biking and the joy of exploring nature on two wheels. My partner and I even had our wedding in Colorado, on a gorgeous summer day under the snow-capped peaks.

But the Laurel Highlands drew us back. I missed the steep, green hills, the rushing rivers and the trill of songbirds in the morning. 

We moved back to Pennsylvania to work at Wilderness Voyageurs in Ohiopyle, where I guided cycling tours and managed the photography department for several years. In the summer of 2017, I left Ohiopyle for a month in June to compete in the Tour Divide, a self-supported bikepacking race from Canada to Mexico. I finished in second place, completing the 2745 miles in 24 days and six hours. 

Since our guiding work was mainly in the summer, my husband and I filled our off-seasons by taking self-supported cycling trips all over the world – to  Vietnam, Thailand, New Zealand, Mexico and Colombia. There were incredible views – rippling mountain ranges, ancient ruins, endangered birds, glacial rivers and epic coastlines. But not everything was beautiful. 

Many times we saw first-hand what happens in countries with weak environmental protections (rivers choked with trash, houses covered in coal dust, overflowing landfills, undrinkable water, forests full of UXOs, mass extinction and habitat loss... I could go on, but I won't). Maybe it’s cliche, but these experiences made me realize how lucky I am to live in the United States. Our environmental policies certainly aren’t perfect, but at least we have the right to advocate for ourselves and our neighbors.

When MWA created the Communications Specialist position, I jumped at the chance to join an organization devoted to protecting my favorite place in the world. I’m thrilled to tell the world about MWA's essential work to keep our precious corner of Pennsylvania safe and healthy.