The People Behind the PCTA: Ryan “RJ” Jones, Relationship Manager

Ryan “RJ” Jones, PCTA Relationship Manager

There is a green refuge about 15 miles south of downtown Chicago, Illinois. Surrounded by miles of neighborhoods in every direction, it’s called the Dan Ryan Forest Preserve, and 10,000 years ago it was an island in a vast glacial lake. Today it’s a mix of forest, wetlands, and mowed fields for outdoor activities. One of these was sledding in the deep snow that would accumulate there every winter.

Ryan “RJ” Jones, PCTA’s new Relationship Manager, grew up in Chicago and spent a lot of time sledding in the preserve. “It was a big thing,” RJ says. “My dad would take us. There would be small mountains of snow, and the biggest one we called Kill-a-Man Mountain because a lot of the kids would go up there and come back hurt.”

RJ also remembers going to the Navy Pier on Lake Michigan, as well as Rainbow Beach. “During March, on Saint Patty’s Day, they’d turn the lake green,” he says. “You’d want to go swim there in the summer, but you didn’t, because it was cold and dirty.”

He is grateful for Chicago, and the city is still a part of his personality. “It shaped me a lot as far as a sense of community goes. I never felt like I didn’t have anywhere to go. And if there were problems there was always a resource there for me. I’d like to move back there someday, when I’m more of a complete person and am able to give back to the community.”

This nostalgia and desire to give back to his native city comes to RJ after years of being away from it. “I haven’t been home much in the past several years,” he says. “A strong community is a good thing, but it can also shape your personality. I left because I wanted to find my own self—I wanted to know, who is RJ? And I think when I go back someday, I’ll be better because of this, and able to give back even more so.”

RJ didn’t initially want to go to college. But he found out about scholarships to attend HBCU’s (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) being awarded by the Siemens Foundation, and applied for one. “I didn’t like school, but it was an opportunity for a full ride at college, and my mom said ‘You’re going there!’ and I thought, okay.” Ryan got the scholarship, and soon found himself at Alabama State University in Montgomery.

“I didn’t have much choice, but I’m happy I did it.” At Alabama State, Ryan found a new family of friends, as well as the distinct culture of the South and the school. “Every HBCU has their own culture, but attending one creates great networking opportunities because everyone at any HBCU understands your experience.”

RJ came to like the open roads in Alabama. “Everyone there was big on traveling—they’d drive five or six hours like it’s nothing just to relax, and I learned a lot from that. He also learned to appreciate sweet tea and boiled peanuts. “It was a pretty different experience I must say, and I’m still grateful for the experiences I had in Alabama.”

In college RJ majored in criminal justice and minored in psychology. He thought he wanted to work in federal law enforcement. “But even while I was interviewing for jobs after college, I didn’t have a real passion or drive for it,” he says. “It felt like I was just doing it to get a job.” Another thing he’d done in undergraduate school was work for local nonprofits as a way of gaining community service hours. “I really enjoyed the work, and sometimes would travel to conferences in nearby cities.”

RJ at his graduation from Columbia University in 2022.

After college RJ worked for the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit whose mission is to end mass incarceration and excessive punishment and to challenge racial and economic injustice. It was a good job, he says, but he felt he needed more—something that would help him grow in his career. “I have a twin brother, and he went to Columbia University for undergraduate school. He had a few connections there, and told me they have a great nonprofit management program. He said ‘You should apply—I think you’d enjoy it.’” When RJ was accepted to Columbia, his friends put it into perspective for him: “They said something like only six percent of applicants get into a program like Columbia—you should go!”

At Columbia, RJ soon found a passion for philanthropy and fundraising. With his graduate degree and encouraged by his professors, RJ began seeking work in fundraising and development. He applied for the position with PCTA through the Bridge Program, a public-private partnership to create an inclusive hiring pathway for conservation industry jobs.

“Fundraising really impacts the ability of a nonprofit to achieve their mission. I always thought I wanted to do community engagement, but fundraising is like working with the community, just on a higher level.”


From L-R: PCTA Director of Philanthropy Angie Williamson with RJ Jones and Crystal Gail Welcome at the 2022 Outdoor Retailer Show.

“When I got the offer, it was really exciting—I called my mom first thing,” says RJ. “I immediately liked PCTA for how relaxed and supportive they were throughout the whole process. And nobody in my family had heard of the Pacific Crest Trail,” he laughs. RJ relocated to Sacramento, never having imagined himself in California. “When driving around the state, I see these huge mountain ranges and I just want to pull over—it looks so amazing to me!

As for his work with PCTA, RJ will be working closely with corporations and foundations interested in supporting the PCT. “Social responsibility is much more important now than ever,” he says, “and people want to have an impact on the world. The PCTA not only works for a great outdoor experience, but they have been clear in their concern for diversity, equity, inclusion, and climate change. And we hope to find partners who share those values.”

Author: Scott Wilkinson

Scott Wilkinson is the PCTA’s Content Development Director. A former professional musician, Scott has 20+ years of experience in almost every marketing role. Before joining the PCTA he was a marketing/creative director at West Virginia University and the University of Oregon. A serious outdoor addict, Scott is an experienced whitewater paddler, hang glider pilot, flyfisher, mountain biker, and (of course) hiker and backpacker.