Who We Are


Who We Are


Laura Starkey, Founder and Executive Director

Laura is a third-generation Floridian, born to a cattle-ranching family and raised on the very land that Heartwood Preserve now occupies. She holds a B.A. in music from Maryville College in Tennessee, an M. A. in Applied Linguistics from USF Tampa. She worked as a community organizer for several years in NC before becoming a teacher of English as a Second Language for immigrant adults in Charlotte. Her love of the international community and connecting to other cultures led her to travel throughout Africa and Latin America. From 1998 to 1999, she lived in the Amazon region of Ecuador where she taught high school English. Upon returning to the U.S., she settled in Tampa’s Seminole Heights.

In 2004, Laura left teaching to work with her father’s eco-tour business, Jay B Starkey’s Flatwoods Adventures, located on the family’s ranch. In 2006, she became Director of Conservation Lands, managing over 1000 acres of woods on Starkey Ranch. During this time, she developed a keen interest in finding ways to conserve natural lands while sharing the beauty of Florida’s woods with the residents and visitors in Florida. It was a workshop at a national land conservation conference that then planted the idea of conservation burial in her mind. Over the next few years, this ‘seed’ sprouted into a business plan. Eventually, the idea of Heartwood Preserve became a reality.


Diana Sayegh-Brooks, Assistant Director


Diana Brooks is local to the Trinity area. She has over 25 years’ experience in customer service, is fully licensed by the State of Florida as a cemetery manager and preneed sales agent, and is a Certified Life Tribute Professional. Having worked in the funeral and cemetery world since 2006, she appreciates being able to help families plan their final wishes.

Diana’s husband Craig, often volunteers at Heartwood and is part of our Burial Crew. She has three children, Liliana, Melody & Christian. When not working as a Mom or at Heartwood, Diana enjoys practicing self-care, meditation, volunteering and frequenting local dog parks. She is the Host of the West Pasco Death Café. She has a special love for the many butterflies found at Heartwood Preserve. Her enthusiasm for our nature preserve shines through in her social media updates and welcoming personality.

As a Certified Life Tribute Professional, Diana works with families to create a funeral service or ‘Celebration of Life’ service. She can help to plan, oversee, and conduct non-religious, semi-religious, and spiritual funeral services at Heartwood Preserve that honor the deceased person’s life.


Contact Diana directly: Diana’s Email



Barnabas ‘Barney’ Machut, Groundskeeper

Originally from the Dinka tribe of South Sudan, Barnabas arrived in the United States in 2001 from Kenya, where he had lived for about 9 years. As a new American, he settled in New Port Richey along with a number of other South Sudanese young men. He worked part time at Wal-Mart and full time at a local Catholic church before coming to work at the Starkey Ranch in May 2005.  Because he comes from a cattle-keeping tribe in South Sudan, he found a calm connection being near the cattle while working at the ranch. He does everything from grounds keeping and equipment maintenance to removing invasive plants and assisting on prescribed burns. In his free time, he enjoys playing dominoes with his friends. Heartwood Preserve is fortunate to have Barney as part of our family. We greatly value his gentle spirit and hard work.


Frank Starkey, Project Manager

Frank’s early contribution to Heartwood Preserve was managing the site planning, design, permitting and construction. He also assisted with the planning and design of the new Welcome Center.

Previously, Frank co-founded (with his brother, Trey) a 568-acre traditional neighborhood development community called Longleaf, located just southwest of Heartwood Preserve.  Frank was deeply involved in all aspects of Longleaf’s development. Later, from 2005 through 2012, Frank and Trey oversaw the planning, entitlements and marketing of Starkey Ranch—a 2,500-acre multi-use development on the family’s remaining land.

In 2013 Frank founded People Places, LLC, a real estate development and consulting company.  Drawing on Frank’s broad experience, its goal is to craft vibrant, people-oriented residential and/or retail places in walkable settings.

Laura and Frank are daughter and son of Marsha and Jay B Starkey, Jr. Both grew up on the land now occupied by Heartwood Preserve and the neighboring community of Starkey Ranch.


Samantha VanTassel, Administrative Assistant

Samantha was born and raised in Florida, growing up in the New Port Richey area. After graduating from Marchman Technical School for Cosmetology, she left home and fulfilled a lifelong dream to travel and experience life beyond her backyard. She spent the next year traveling cross-country twice and living out a childhood dream of living in London for a month. She settled in Ohio for 5 years where she worked at Whole Foods Market and learned about organic and green practices, which she made an integral part of her life. Missing the support system of having family near by, Samantha moved back to New Port Richey where she met her life partner, Juan and two step-daughters, Abigail and Tristin. She has a passion for cooking and tries to go camping as often as possible. She has found peace working at Heartwood and the tranquility of the pines. 



Contact Laura or Diana anytime (727) 376-5111