Meet our Staff

In addition to those listed here, the Smokies Life staff team includes some 80 full- and part-time employees who work in our 13 visitor centers and other contact points in and around the national park.

Chief Executive Officer

Laurel Rematore

Laurel was recruited to Smokies Life and arrived in January 2016. Her previous positions include Program and Human Resources Management for Lockheed Martin Corporation, Membership and Development Director for the Yosemite Association, and Executive Director for the Mesa Verde Museum Association. As a Rotarian, Laurel works to improve the quality of life for Gatlinburg residents as well as to support international Rotary initiatives. She is a past trustee of the Anna Porter Public Library in Gatlinburg, and she served for eight years on the Public Lands Alliance board of directors. Laurel graduated from Leadership Sevier in 2017 and East Tennessee Regional Leadership in 2018. She is motivated by her love of our national parks and her recognition that public lands and the agencies that manage them need effective partners now more than ever. At Smokies Life she seeks new ways to meet challenges that otherwise might not be addressed due to bureaucratic and political circumstances. “Public lands will only continue to be protected as long as our society considers them to be relevant and meaningful,” said Laurel. “The people and businesses who pledge their support to the Smokies Life mission have a connection to this place, and it is their interest and stewardship that will preserve this park for future generations.”

Creative Team

Frances Figart

Frances Figart, Creative Services Director

Frances Figart (Fié-gert) is the editor of Smokies Life journal, the Smokies LIVE blog, and several books published by the association. Her column “Word from the Smokies” appears regularly in the Asheville Citizen Times. Frances’ road ecology fable, A Search for Safe Passage, won Publication of the Year in 2022 from the Public Lands Alliance. It chronicles the adventures of 19 species of wildlife banding together to cross a highway, educating readers of all ages about the need for wildlife crossings. Her Mabel Meets a Black Bear was published in 2023 and follows twin ten-year-old girls who learn the hard way how to be BearWise and grow up to teach others the importance of keeping food away from black bears. Frances’ third book, Camilla and the Caterpillars, is slated for fall 2024 release. It supports the Homegrown National Park movement catalyzed by Doug Tallamy, advocating for the cultivation of native plants and trees on private lands to strengthen species diversity.

Aaron Searcy

Aaron Searcy, Lead Editor

Aaron began working with Smokies Life as a freelance writer and editor at the end of 2018 shortly after returning to East Tennessee from Melbourne, Australia, where he earned a master’s degree in writing, publishing, and editing. In January 2020, Aaron officially joined the Smokies Life Creative Team as a publications associate supporting books, periodicals, and podcast. With projects exploring everything from the park’s unique ecology and wildlife to its history, folkways, and music, Aaron couldn’t be happier to find himself back home in the Smokies. “What I love most about the Smokies is ever changing,“ said Aaron. “When I was younger, I mostly loved eating the sandwiches my parents packed for our trips to the mountains. Now, with a slightly firmer grasp of the natural and cultural history of these mountains, I love the park for what it protects and celebrates—an important refuge for biodiversity and diverse people, too.”

Holly Kays

Holly Kays, Lead Writer

Holly Kays joined the Smokies Life creative team in March 2024. As lead writer, she is responsible for telling Smokies stories for a variety of Smokies Life publications, including Smokies Life journal, the Smokies LIVE blog, and the "Word from the Smokies" column, which appears in the Asheville Citizen Times and the Smoky Mountain News. Formerly a journalist for the Smoky Mountain News, she earned 62 state and national awards during her news reporting career. She grew up in western Maryland and is a graduate of Virginia Tech's creative writing and natural resources conservation programs. “I’m excited for a new adventure as lead writer for Smokies Life,” Holly said. “I look forward to learning more about the myriad ways in which this 71-year-old organization supports America’s most-visited national park.” Holly is also the author of two books: Trailblazers & Traditionalists: Modern-Day Smoky Mountain People, which profiles some of the diverse people who call this region home, and a novel, Shadows of Flowers.

Valerie Polk, Videographer and Publications Associate

Valerie Polk is a filmmaker and contributor to the Smokies Life award-winning YouTube channel. For more than 10 years Valerie has documented the beauty, the history, and the extraordinary experiences that draw visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Valerie also supports the Smokies Life Creative Team as a publications associate, putting her skills as a writer and editor toward publications such as Smokies Guide and Smokies LIVE. A native of Townsend, TN, Valerie's passion for the park began as a child with family picnics at Metcalf Bottoms and hikes to the Walker Sisters Cabin, the homeplace of her great-grandmother Sarah Caroline Walker Shelton. "I never imagined that I would be able to work in a place that is so meaningful to me," Valerie said. "This park is part of my heritage, and working with Smokies Life and park service staff allows me to see that the historical and natural treasures here are in good hands."

Karen Key, Design Team Manager

Karen has served on the Smokies Life creative team since 2006 and is a full-time senior publications specialist providing graphic design and administrative work that helps generate numerous publications. She is responsible for the overall layout of the park newspaper, Smokies Guide, designs articles for Smokies Life Journal and created the moonshine book, Corn From a Jar. Her recent design projects include Into the Mist by David Brill and the CD Big Bend Killing. Award-winning publications she has designed include the Bearpaw newsletter, Hike the Smokies and Frequently Asked Questions about Smoky Mountain Black Bears. Karen has also provided graphic assistance for Public Land Alliance awards submissions. “It feels like I’m using my skills for the prosperity of an amazing place,” she said. “I love the idea of communicating to park visitors, so they can pass down their appreciation and knowledge of the natural world to their loved ones.”

Emma Oxford, Graphic Designer

Emma’s career with Smokies Life began in 2016 as a sales assistant in the Cades Cove and Townsend stores, and her background as an artist was quickly put to use with her illustrations featured in Smokies Guide, Smokies Life Journal and other projects. In 2018 she became a full-time member of the Creative Team creating layouts and illustrations for Smokies Life publications, designing products for retail, and developing marketing and membership materials. Growing up in Michigan, Emma’s love for the Great Smoky Mountains was sparked during childhood family trips to the Smokies every spring. One of her favorite memories is climbing around the rocks in the river at Chimneys picnic area, and she became intensely fascinated with the natural history exhibits at Sugarlands Visitor Center at a young age. “I love ecology and considering where people fit into our greater relationship with the land and the other species we share it with,” Emma said. “It’s almost impossible to learn more about the living things around us and not feel a responsibility to consider our impact.” To compliment her talents as an artist and her passion for nature, Emma obtained a naturalist certification from the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont.

Miranda Bemis, Graphic Designer

Miranda Bemis joined the Smokies Life Creative Team in 2022 and comes to the Smokies from Brazil, Indiana, where she served as a graphic designer in the Communications and Marketing Department of DePauw University. Beyond her experience creating digital art and collaborating with partners on a range of print and digital products, Miranda brings to her work a deep commitment to serving the Great Smoky Mountains—a special place she once visited regularly when she wasn’t exploring local rivers and hiking trails back home in rural Indiana. She has an affinity for fungi and moss species and enjoys photographing birds with her husband Joshua and their two children, Melina and Jameson. “I have been working in the design industry for 15 years, creating publications and collaborating with others to establish and maintain brands in retail and higher education,” said Miranda. “Now I’m excited to combine my graphic design skills with my passion for the Smokies and their preservation by creating publications at Smokies Life."


Zak Lancaster, Chief Financial Officer

Zak joined the Smokies Life Accounting Department in December 2020, where he has served as a research accountant and controller before assuming the role of chief financial officer in 2023. He holds degrees in accounting and economics from Emory & Henry College in Virginia and has worked in accounting positions of increasing responsibility since 2015. Zak grew up visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park from his nearby hometown of Morristown, Tennessee, and today he remains an avid hiker and angler. After becoming a father in 2023, Zak hopes to pass on his love for the Smokies to his son, Fischer. “From hiking with my wife to fly fishing in the many streams, my fondness for what GSMA is and has been doing continues to grow,” he says. “I am so thankful to be part of an organization that helps preserve a such a wonderful place that I spent so much time enjoying as a kid, and that hopefully someday my kids will be able to enjoy as well.”

Rachael Hall, Staff Accountant

Rachael came to Smokies Life from her home state of Ohio where she grew up in a family of six, including her identical twin sister, Debbie. The two still enjoy taking advantage of their lookalike appearances to amuse and confuse others. Working at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium spurred Rachael’s interest in nonprofit work, a path that would lead her to the Smokies. She now handles accounts for the Smokies Life Sugarlands and Gatlinburg stores and works closely with membership, webstore, wholesale, and mail order operations. Some of her favorite activities include reading, watching movies and anime, attending Renaissance festivals, and anything that allows her to dress up in costumes. Rachael values the landscape and history of the Smokies and cherishes her family vacation memories here, all of which make her proud and excited to go to work every day. “Family is one of the most important things to me,” she said, “so the memories I was able to create then and now are incredibly special to me.”

Tonya McElveen, Staff Accountant

Tonya oversees accounts for the Smokies Life North Carolina stores and assists with accounts payable when needed. She didn’t discover the Smokies until she was an adult, but she is now thrilled to make her home here with her husband and their little dog, Zoe. They first visited the area more than 20 years ago and were immediately drawn in. “There’s something magical about these mountains that kept us coming back year after year,” said Tonya. “When our last child graduated high school, we finally felt we could make the move to our ‘happy place.’” She described the move from their South Carolina home as one of the hardest decisions she has ever made, but the timing was right to find out what mountain living was all about. Now she and her husband are part of a local Jeep club and spend their free time exploring the national park and chasing sunsets. “Beauty is all around us here,” she said, “and I don’t want to ever take it for granted.”

Brandon Murphy, Staff Accountant

Brandon is an East Tennessee native, growing up in Knoxville, TN, and now making his home in Sevierville. He handles accounts and inventory for the Smokies Life Cades Cove and Townsend stores. Brandon is a graduate of King University where he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. A sports fan, he enjoys college baseball, basketball, and football and officiates local high school basketball and football games. Brandon loves spending time outdoors with his wife, Sara, and his son, Landon, and he is pleased to contribute his talents to supporting Great Smoky Mountains National Park so that generations to come may be able to enjoy its wild splendor. “Being from East Tennessee, the Smokies have always been special to me as a place to come and visit,” Brandon said. “I love that there is so much natural beauty that we can enjoy right in our backyard.”

Human Resources

Kelli Green

Kelli Green, Human Resources Director

Originally from Ohio, Kelli has lived in East Tennessee since 1986 and worked for Smokies Life since 1999. Her responsibilities include overseeing timekeeping, payroll, hiring, employee insurance, and personnel systems and managing supplies, repairs, and maintenance of the main office. Kelli also guides the drafting and review of the organization’s employee handbook, a 62-page document approved by the board of directors that covers everything from hiring and training to compensation, personnel and role classifications, standards of conduct, employee benefits, and workplace safety policies. “I love being part of such a great team that is able to touch so many lives,” said Kelli. “When I tell people I work for Smokies Life, I often hear stories from them about their positive experiences with our staff.”

Leah Ayers

Leah Ayers, Human Resources Assistant

Leah Ayers came to the Smokies area in 1995 from her home state of Georgia and joined Smokies Life in 2022. With a background in human resources and retail management, Leah has a working knowledge of the unique challenges presented by the local job market. A big part of her job is onboarding new employees, and she strives to make navigating the hiring process as easy as possible. Leah is also an avid gardener, wildcrafter, and herbalist whose love of plants began as a child on family camping trips in the Smokies. Her grandmother Ada would often point out plants on their walks in the woods and explain how they could be used for food, medicine, or dye. This early education instilled in her a great love of Appalachian plant life, and in keeping with that knowledge-sharing tradition, she often works with groups and first-time gardeners who wish to learn more about native plants and preserve indigenous botanical diversity in their own backyards.


Peyton Proffitt, Membership Director

Born and raised in Sevier County, TN, Peyton returned home in 2016 after receiving her BA in Environmental Studies from Wofford College and her registered yoga teacher certification in Bali, Indonesia. She also spent time abroad studying food and energy policy related to climate change and worked as a campaign finance director in South Carolina. At Smokies Life, Peyton is responsible for maintaining the organization’s membership database and ensuring all 30,000+ members engage with the Smokies through the Get Rooted program and its benefits. “This park, its extraordinary biodiversity, rich cultural history, and ancient mountains are deeply intertwined with my family and heritage,” she said, “So I feel grateful to be back in my community, working to protect and preserve Great Smoky Mountains National Park for future generations.”

Anne May, Membership Program Manager

Anne grew up in East Tennessee and has wonderful memories of visiting GSMNP as a child. One of six children, her parents regularly brought the family to Great Smoky Mountains National Park for hikes and picnics. After moving to Sevier County in 1992 to raise her own family, she continued the tradition with participation in the Parks as Classroom program with her two children and regular hikes with friends. Anne’s formal education was in Music Pedagogy, and she maintained a private piano studio for more than three decades before getting her first job at a nonprofit in 2014. She is excited to be bringing her experience with nonprofits and her love of the national park together to make a difference at Smokies Life.

Charlene Shiver

Charlene Shiver, Membership Associate

Charlene joined Smokies Life in 2018 as a part-time temporary employee and was promoted to a full-time position in 2020 as part of the Membership Department. She is responsible for keeping our members’ information up-to-date so that they can stay connected with Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Charlene grew up in Florida with one parent who was born and raised in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia. She grew up with a love of the culture and history of the people that lived the mountains. "If history is not sought out, recorded, and shared with future generations, it is lost,” she said.

Jane Maurer, Business Outreach Specialist

Jane began her career with Smokies Life in 2021. With fourteen years of experience in the corporate sector and seventeen in elementary education, she combines her business and teaching backgrounds with her love of nature and public land preservation as the Smokies Life Business Outreach Specialist. “I enjoy learning about and working with businesses in our park’s gateway community. Through initiatives involving culture, history, science, and economics, there are so many ways for our area businesses to connect with the park and for us to support them.” From the flat land of central Indiana, Jane relocated to western NC with her husband in 2015. They are enjoying the mountains and nature to its fullest while living in this region.

André Brousseau, Membership Engagement Specialist

André joined the Smokies Life Membership Team in 2022, and serves as the Membership Engagement Specialist. He has a B.S. in Business Administration from Indiana State University and has a depth of experience in association and nonprofit management, development, and marketing. He holds the CAE credential from the American Society of Association Executives, as well as the CNP credential from the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance.André has lived all over the United States and is thrilled to have settled in the region surrounding the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As an avid hiker and photographer, he has been a frequent visitor to GSMNP and other wild spaces throughout his life. He is excited to be able to apply his professional background towards the preservation of such an important place.

Retail Team

Dawn Roark

Dawn Roark, Retail Director

Originally from England, Dawn has lived in Maryville since 1977 and took her U.S. Citizenship oath in 2017. After serving for eight years as Senior Store Manager for the Smokies Life Blount County Team (Cades Cove, Townsend and the Cove's Orientation Shelter), she was promoted to Retail Director in 2013. In this role she is responsible for finding and developing new products, buying and maintaining correct inventory levels, overseeing all store locations and supervising the Senior Store Managers. Because Dawn oversees many people who interact with thousands of park visitors every day, creativity, tenacity and empathy are all important to her position, which she thoroughly enjoys. "It's every woman's dream job,” she said. “I actually get paid to shop!”

Brenda Ownby, Assistant Retail Director

Brenda is a Sevier County native who has been with Smokies Life since 2001. Her responsibilities include purchasing merchandise, looking for new items to offer based on current trends and keeping visitor centers fully stocked. “Years ago, my daughter Robin picked up an application at the Smokies Life warehouse and filled it out for me,” said Brenda. “I was planning to take that summer off and do some home projects, but much to my surprise I got the job and I’m very glad I did.”

Judy Bowman, Retail Operations Manager

Formerly the Senior Store Manager for Smokies Life Team Sevier, the unit responsible for Sugarlands Visitor Center and Gatlinburg Welcome Center, Judy was promoted to Retail Operations Manager in June 2024. She has worked for Smokies Life since 2009 and finds that laughter is important for keeping happy, motivated staff and happy customers. Despite the busy pace, she takes the time to help each visitor enjoy their vacation. “We learn something new every day here and feel we made a difference in the preservation of this park,” she said. “In return, we have the opportunity to share some time with the different folks we meet from all over the United States and the world.

Russell Heenie, Wholesale Sales and Off-Site Events Manager

Russell is the Smokies Life Wholesale Sales and Off-Site Events Manager—a position that includes supplying Smokies Life publications to local businesses, promoting Smokies Life products beyond the Smokies, and supporting Smokies Life events. Working with Smokies Life since 2012, Russell brings to his role a valuable background in book and magazine sales, knowledge of book distribution logistics, and a personal affinity for audio books. But whether he’s working behind the scenes, helping visitors directly, or setting up an event, Russell’s favorite part of his job is deepening others’ knowledge and appreciation of the Smokies. “I first visited the park as a child vacationing from Florida and in my 20s used Cades Cove as a base camp for hiking,” Russell said. “It’s been nice to return to the area, raise children in such a scenic place and have the ability to share the experience with appreciative visitors every day.”

Senior Store Managers

Matt Drauszewski, Senior Store Manager

As a Senior Store Manager in the park’s visitor centers, Matt works on rotation at Clingmans Dome, Oconaluftee, Bryson City and sometimes Mingus Mill. His responsibilities include maintaining a positive image of Smokies Life and Great Smoky Mountains National Park through visitor interactions, promoting Smokies Life membership programming and coaching staff to better provide these same opportunities to visitors. He has been in his position since 2016. Matt cites his proudest accomplishment as simply being able to support GSMNP with his park family in both North Carolina and Tennessee. “I've been told by my co-workers that I am patient, kind and dedicated,” Matt said. “I trust their judgment and, since I have been hearing these compliments with increased frequency, there must be some accuracy.”

Smokies Life

Patricia Lumpkin, Senior Store Manager

Patricia grew up in Tyler, TX and now lives in Maryville, TN. She has many years of retail experience. In her role as Senior Sales Manager for Blount County, Patricia is responsible for staffing, scheduling, inventory, and daily management of Great Smokies Welcome Center, Cades Cove Visitor Center, and the Cades Cove Orientation Shelter. In addition to these duties, Patricia provides visitors with information about the park, including trail information and recommendations, directions, and the history of GSMNP. “I love walking along Cades Cove Loop Road in the early morning during winter,” she says. “It’s truly the most serene feeling, just you and wildlife with frost on the ground.”

Great Smokies

Welcome Center

Hours of Operation

(subject to change)

Open year round (closed December 25)

January - February

Open Daily 9:00 am - 4:30 pm

March - November

Open Daily 9:00 am - 5:00 pm

Open Daily 9:00 am - 4:30 pm

The Great Smokies Welcome Center is located on U.S. 321 in Townsend, TN, 2 miles from the west entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Visitors can get information about things to see and do in and around the national park and shop from a wide selection of books, gifts, and other Smokies merchandise. Daily, weekly, and annual parking tags for the national park are also available.

Physical Address

7929 E. Lamar Alexander Parkway Townsend TN 37882


865.436.7318 Ext 320