Donna Cooper, M.P.A., M.I.M., Executive Director
Prior to Children First, Donna was a senior fellow at the respected national think tank, the Center for American Progress, where she led the Center’s research on early childhood education, public infrastructure, and was a contributing researcher to the Center’s work to reduce the incidence of poverty. She served as the Secretary of Policy and Planning for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania from 2003–2010 where she was responsible for the state’s education, public supports, environmental and health care policy. While in that position, Donna led the development of the state’s Cover All Kids program which expanded access to affordable health care to nearly every child in the state. Donna also led the seven-year effort to boost funding for public education that increased K-12 funding by over $2 billion, and designed the state’s groundbreaking school funding formula which was enacted in 2008.
Donna was the founding Executive Director of Good Schools, a grassroots organizing campaign that successfully pushed public education to the top issue in the 2002 race for Governor. She also served as the City of Philadelphia’s Deputy Mayor of Policy and Planning from 1999–2002 where she designed and led the Greater Philadelphia Works Program, one of the nation’s largest and most successful efforts to help single mothers on welfare achieve self-sufficiency. Donna has a master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of Pennsylvania, Fels Center of Government, and a master’s degree in Intercultural Management from the School for International Training. Reach Donna at 215-563-5848 ext. 301 or donnac at childrenfirstpa.org.
Judy Adamson, M.B.A., Chief Financial Officer
Judy joined Children First in 2014, bringing over 40 years of financial and non-profit administrative management experience to the organization. She has an impressive track record of developing and guiding financial systems for organizations experiencing growth or contraction, especially in times of leadership transition. All of her work stems from a place of commitment to bettering the lives of Philadelphia citizens (and strengthening the institutions that serve them), especially those whose lives are disadvantaged by poverty. In addition to financial management, she assists Children First with development management and modernizing administrative systems. Judy has an MBA from Temple University in General and Strategic Management. Reach Judy at judya at childrenfirstpa.org.
Stefanie Arbutina, M.S.W., Vulnerable Youth Policy Director
Before joining Children First, Stefanie was a Senior Program Officer at the Center for Health Care Strategies, where she provided technical assistance and programmatic support for child health projects, including those focused on improving publicly financed children’s behavioral health and ensuring timely healthcare for children in foster care. Before moving to Pennsylvania, she led the establishment of a statewide coalition to promote well-being for adolescents in Illinois. She also successfully advocated for a number of state legislative initiatives, including the creation of a Youth Budget Commission and youth-focused fiscal map, and presumptive subsidized child care eligibility for families receiving child welfare services. Stefanie holds a master’s in social work from the University of Cincinnati and a master’s in public policy from DePaul University. She lives in Media with her husband, son, and their boxer. Reach Stefanie at 215-563-5848 ext. 261 or stefaniea at childrenfirstpa.org.
Kenya Blackstone, M.S.W., Community Engagement & Parent Advocacy Specialist
Kenya spent ten years working in a public high school in New Jersey where she discovered her love and passion for assisting and advocating for students. She has worked previously as a teen coordinator, facilitator, and case manager with other nonprofits, and has collaborated on different committees dedicated to making changes within education. Kenya’s love for wanting to supply the underrepresented with the necessary resources to help support children and families is something that she has long been eager to do! Kenya graduated from Temple University, earning a master’s in social work, and holds a graduate certificate in organizational leadership from Cairn University. She lives in Bucks County and has a young adult daughter and a cockapoo. Reach Kenya at 215-563-5848 ext. 403 or kenyab at childrenfirstpa.org.
Stephanie Blake, Ed.D., Early Childhood Racial Equity Coordinator
Dr. Blake joined the Children First team in 2021, having worked with a variety of childcare programs providing consulting, technical assistance, and training in diverse, cultural, and socioeconomic settings. Her previous roles included working with Pre-K Counts and Head Start programs with the PA Keys. As a an adjunct faculty member at Rowan University and Arcadia University, she serves as a supervisor for pre-service teachers. Stephanie earned a Doctor of Education in Education Leadership at Gratz College along with a Master of Education with a focus in early childhood education. In her dissertation, Stephanie describes how diversity initiatives should be used to enhance the representation of African American Women in early childhood leadership positions. Additionally, she holds a master’s degree in Business Administration and a bachelor’s degree from Arcadia University. Reach Stephanie at 215-563-5848 ext. 321 or stephanieb at childrenfirstpa.org.
Marcy Boroff, Grants Officer
Marcy’s career has focused on improving access to healthcare, work, and education with collaboration with community partners and other key stakeholders. From improving access to prenatal and pediatric healthcare in Baltimore, creating a framework with and for community-based organizations to work with the School District of Philadelphia, and leading the Community Health Worker Program at Jefferson Health, she has always recognized the importance of stable funding, and participated in writing and managing grants. She builds on her project management and vast knowledge of the issues as she secures sustainable grant funding across all Children First’s programs. Reach Marcy at 215-563-5848 ext. 421 or marcyb at childrenfirstpa.org.
Caroline Dellheim, Early Childhood Education Special Projects Associate
Prior to joining Children First and moving to Philadelphia, Caroline spent two and a half years living in Washington, DC, and working at Share Our Strength, the organization behind the No Kid Hungry campaign. She brings her passion for uplifting and empowering children and families and working towards a more equitable and just society that prioritizes one of our most critical industries – early childhood education. Caroline joined the Children First team in 2022, after earning her bachelor’s degree from Kenyon College in 2019. Reach Caroline at 215-563-5848 ext. 141 or carolined at childrenfirstpa.org.
Caroline Estey King, Major Gifts Director
Caroline brings to Children First over 20 years of practical, hands-on experience in Philadelphia’s nonprofit community with special expertise in strategic planning, capital campaigns, government relations and individual major gift fundraising. Caroline’s areas of expertise include major donor and volunteer relations, membership and annual fund campaigns, board management and training, strategic planning, government relations, and development communications. Caroline has coordinated numerous annual funds, special gift initiatives, and capital campaigns and has planned and implemented both large and small special events. Caroline has also worked as an independent consultant working with different non-profit organizations on initiatives ranging from multi-million dollar capital campaigns to public art initiatives to image building strategies. Reach Caroline at 215-563-5848 ext. 311 or carolinek at childrenfirstpa.org.
Kate Fox, DrPH(c), M.P.H., Behavioral Health Policy Coordinator
In her work at Children First, Kate leads efforts to improve school-based mental health, increase access to services, and promote healing-centered approaches to children’s mental health. Prior to Children First, Kate spent ten years working in public service at Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS). Kate is also a doctoral candidate in health management and policy at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health, where she is working on a dissertation around coalition-building and participatory advocacy to advance the inclusion of people with mental illness in mental health policy work. Outside of work, Kate likes to focus on raising the next generation of socially conscious leaders by spending time with her young daughter. Reach Kate at 215-563-5848 ext. 221 or katef at childrenfirstpa.org.
Steven Fynes, Administrative Director
Steven maintains the IT infrastructure and office environment including the Every Action database, Office 365 administration, keeps the website up-to-date along with network, workstation and mobile devices. In addition to publication design and layout, he routinely assists his colleagues on special projects and troubleshooting issues. The primary coordinator of Children First’s major events, Steven works with staff, volunteers, and outside vendors and venues on rallies in Harrisburg and Philadelphia and is the lead organizer of our annual “Celebration of the Public Citizen for Children and Youth.” He is also responsible for individual and corporate fundraising and serves as the staff liaison to Children First boards and advisory councils. Prior to joining Children First in 1995, Steven worked as an Administrative Director for Friends of Philadelphia Parks. Reach Steven at 215-563-5848 ext. 111 stevenf at childrenfirstpa.org.
Rosemarie Halt, R.Ph., M.P.H., Interim Health Policy Director
Rosemarie is a registered pharmacist with a master’s degree in Public Health and has over 30 years of experience as a healthcare professional, specializing in health policy and public health. She was most recently the COVID Director of Delaware County, coordinating the COVID pandemic response with Chester County Health Department and Pennsylvania Department of Health. During her two and half years working on COVID response, she played an integral part in forming the Delaware County Health Department and currently serves as Chair of the Board of Health for the county. Prior to working for Delaware County, she was the Senior Director of Policy for Maternity Care Coalition where she advocated for the health and well-being of pregnant women and their families. Reach Rosemarie at 215-563-5848 ext. 331 or rosemarieh at childrenfirstpa.org.
Shirlee Howe, M.S.W., Education Coordinator for Montgomery and Delaware Counties
Shirlee’s focus is to engage stakeholders in suburban counties to join the conversation of equitably funding area schools and encourage the expansion of high-quality early education. Prior to joining Children First in 2015, she managed the Child and Adult Care Food Program, serving family and group day care home providers throughout the Philadelphia region. She began her career in early childhood education with CCIS-North, where she enrolled subsidy-eligible children in the Child Care Matters initiative. She holds a Master of Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice. Reach Shirlee at 215-563-5848 ext. 341 or shirleeh at childrenfirstpa.org.
Maggie King, Health Advocacy Associate
Maggie’s focus on Children First Health Policy Team is on our statewide coalition to end childhood lead poisoning in Pennsylvania. Returning to Children First after interning as a high school student, Maggie is glad to be working where her love of policy began. While earning her bachelor’s degree from Wellesley College, she pursued opportunities at the Public Defender Association of Philadelphia and advocated for substance free/recovery services on her college campus. Maggie will graduate from The University of Pennsylvania School of Social Practice and Policy with a master’s in social policy in 2023. Reach Maggie at 215-563-5848 ext. 351 or maggiek at childrenfirstpa.org.
Amy J. Kobeta, M.P.A., Communications Director
Amy was the Vice President of Arizona’s statewide child advocacy organization, Children’s Action Alliance, from 2007 to 2015 where she managed all print, broadcast, and social media, website and publication design, and advocacy materials. She also ran the Children’s Action Alliance Leadership Academy, which taught communications and lobbying skills to emerging child advocacy leaders. For eight years, Amy served on the Phoenix Union High School Governing Board, providing citizen oversight of district’s policies and $26 million annual budget, and authorizing programs and policies to improve the performance of approximately 27,000 students and 3,000 staff. She has a Master of Public Administration degree from New York University/University College London, and lives in East Kensington. Reach Amy at 215-563-5848 ext. 231 or amyk at childrenfirstpa.org.
Symbol Lai, Ph.D., Philadelphia Mobilization and Policy Director
Symbol supports coalitions of out-of-school-time (OST) providers and the Read by 4th initiative, and leads Children First’s advocacy efforts in the Philadelphia School District, City Council, and municipal administration. She brings a wealth of experience in public service and advocacy from previous positions as a Legislative Director in the Pennsylvania legislature and Deputy Director of the City of Philadelphia Office of Immigrant Affairs, where she grew the Office’s initiatives in immigrant workers rights, workforce development, and cultural programming. She credits her professional path to the time she spent learning how to organize and build community (in OST programs) with Asian Americans United and Asian Arts Initiative as a high school youth. Symbol has a doctorate in History from the University of Washington and a bachelor’s from Temple University. Reach Symbol at 215-563-5848 x401 or symboll at childrenfirstpa.org.
Brian Lang, M.P.A., Deputy Director
Brian Lang has more than two decades of experience in non-profit management and advocacy, leading groundbreaking initiatives to ensure that every child has the resources they need to grow up healthy. Prior to joining Children First, Brian served as Director of Healthy Food Access at The Food Trust, where he led a decade-long, multi-state advocacy campaign that drove hundreds of millions of dollars in public investment for better healthy food retail in low-income communities; and launched the Center for Healthy Food Access, that issued policy briefs and developed coalitions to support major wins for nutrition programs in the 2018 Farm Bill. Brian holds a master’s degree in Public Administration from the Fels Institute for Government at the University of Pennsylvania. Reach Brian at 215-514-5010 or brianl at childrenfirstpa dot org.
Mai Miksic, M.S.W., Early Childhood Education Policy Director
Prior to joining Children First, Mai was the senior research analyst at the Day Care Council of New York, where she advocated for early childhood programs across New York City, including the implementation of an early childhood career ladder program, determining the cost of pay parity for early childhood educators from community-based organizations, and fighting for additional funding for community-based early childhood programs in New York City’s public housing. Other previous research examined the effects of No Child Left Behind on children of immigrants and the black-white achievement gap. She holds a bachelor’s degree in social welfare from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a master’s degree in social work from the Columbia University. She lives in Havertown, PA with her husband and two young children. Reach Mai at 215-563-5848 ext. 181 or maim at childrenfirstpa.org.
Mildred Mendez, Health Insurance Enroller (Spanish-speaker)
Mildred came out of retirement to help parents obtain medical insurance for their children. She was first recruited as a volunteer and then joined the staff part-time to assist Spanish-speaking families apply for medical insurance through Medicaid or CHIP. Prior to joining Children First, Mildred worked with the First Judicial District of Philadelphia for 31 years, first with the adult Probation Department in a variety of administrative positions and then transferred over to the Juvenile Division, Dependency Unit where she worked as a Court Rep. In her previous positions, Mildred served as interpreter on several occasions. Mildred is a graduate of Jules E Mastbaum Area Vocational Technical High School. Reach Mildred at 215-563-5848 ext. 271 or mildredm at childrenfirstpa.org.
Dawn Nock, M.Ed., Provider Council Coordinator
Dawn, an innovative trainer and planner, has served in the early childhood industry as specialist, consultant, administrator, adjunct instructor, and classroom teacher, exercising collaborative and attunement approaches. In her work at Head Start in North Philadelphia, she built successful partnerships to develop the PNC Grow Up Math and Add it Up for Families initiatives and launched financial literacy workshops for families, bringing in nearly $500,000 in savings or earned income to the program and participating families.
Dawn’s pandemic responsiveness resulted in timely collaborations and trainings, including an unprecedented delivery of 385 age-appropriate Trauma-Informed Social Emotional Kits to children and families confined to shelters during the pandemic. Dawn received her master’s in Education from West Chester University and a bachelor’s in Theatre Education from Howard University (the REAL HU!) where her commitment to returning to serve originated. Reach Dawn at 215-563-5848 ext. 201 or dawnn at childrenfirstpa.org.
Dan O’Brien, M.Ed., Policy Manager, Education & Family Stability
Dan was born and raised in Bucks County where he currently resides with his family. He was a teacher until he decided to leave the classroom to fight to help fix a broken education system. Dan was the Campaign Coordinator for a Pennsylvania state senate race, and Director for Local Government Relations for a PA state senator before joining the Children First team. Dan’s work at Children First has included successfully advocating for expanded access to early childhood education and record state investments in public school funding to ensure Pennsylvania does its part to provide a high-quality education for all children. Dan also is currently leading Children First’s efforts to ensure that working families in Pennsylvania have access to paid family and medical leave. He has a Bachelor’s in Journalism from Penn State University and a Master’s in Education from Holy Family University. Reach Dan at 215-630-9592 or dano at childrenfirstpa.org.
Anjanette Perry, Child HealthWatch HelpLine Coordinator
Anjanette helps parents of uninsured and underinsured children apply for health insurance through Medicaid or CHIP. Before joining Children First, she worked for Child Care Information Services (CCIS) West/Southwest and Northwest agencies for over 15 years helping low-income families apply for subsidized childcare, supplied parents with resources and referrals, and provided community outreach. Through the years, she held several positions within the organizations such as Resource and Referral Specialist, Senior Resource and Referral Specialist, Parent Services Manager, and TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) Eligibility Specialist. Anjanette has an Associate of Arts Degree in Human Services Management from the University of Phoenix. Reach Anjanette at 215-563-5848 ext. 171 or anjanettep at childrenfirstpa.org.
Inella Ray, Director of Parent Advocacy & Engagement
Before Children First, Inella served as the Director of School Operations at KIPP Lanning Square and has also worked across the education space, ranging from out-of-school time programming to teacher recruitment and youth development. Inella holds a Bachelor of Business Administration from Temple University’s Fox School of Business with a concentration in economics and is currently pursuing a Master of Education at The Harvard Graduate School of Education in education leadership. In addition, she proudly serves on the board of Lift Every Voice Philly and the Philadelphia Orchard Project. She is a West Philadelphia native and resident, and strives to live her life with the joy it deserves! Reach Inella at 215-563-5848 ext. 151 or inellar at childrenfirstpa.org.
Priyanka Reyes-Kaura, M.A.T., M.P.P., K-12 Education Policy Director
Priyanka loves all things related to education, and she started her career as a middle school English teacher. Since leaving the classroom, Priyanka has worked in education technology, curriculum research, and policy analysis in multiple states. Most recently, she led the policy research team at The Education Trust – New York. Priyanka grew up in Chester County and personally understands the value of a high-quality, well-funded public education. She holds a bachelor’s in economics and sociology from The University of Pittsburgh, a master’s in teaching from the Relay Graduate School of Education, and a master’s in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Priyanka currently lives in Philadelphia with her husband and their mischievous dog. Reach Priyanka at 215-563-5848 ext. 361 or priyankark at childrenfirstpa.org.
Nelida Sepulveda, Big Thing Action Committee Director
With over 25 years experience advocating for effective workforce and public education reform policies, Neli returns to Children First as the Big Thing Action Plan Director. As such, she oversees Children First’s initiative to create a multi-year action plan that addresses statewide policy and financial needs for career tech education, mental health, and a diverse teacher pipeline. Neli works closely with regional and statewide partners to lead a research and planning process that will expand access and resources to Pennsylvania’s kids. Reach Neli at 215-430-3369 or nelidas at childrenfirstpa.org.
Gail Smith, Finance and Human Resources Administrator
For over 35 years of Children First’s growth and development, Gail has been responsible for day-to-day operations ensuring human resources, payroll, and accounting functions operate efficiently. Prior to joining Children First, Gail worked with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia where she served in various administrative support capacities. She’s a graduate of West Catholic High School for Girls and is a native of Philadelphia. Reach Gail at 215-563-5848 ext. 241 or gails at childrenfirstpa.org.
Parker Thomas, MPP, Child Policy Research Associate
Parker provides policy and data analyses on child health, education, early learning, and family stability. Before joining Children First, Parker was the Research and Advocacy Associate at Class Size Matters in New York City, where he developed and conducted parent-teacher surveys and analyzed citywide public education data. He also interned with the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, Office of Child Care in 2021, where he researched how OST program, schools, and governmental agencies provided child care for essential workers and low-income families during the COVID pandemic. Parker has a master’s degree in Public Policy from the University of Maryland and a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Public Policy from Susquehanna University. He is a native Pennsylvanian, growing up in and living in Berks County. Reach Parker at 215-563-5848 ext. 131 or parkert at childrenfirstpa.org.
ML Wernecke, Director, PA Charter School Performance Center
ML has over 30 years’ experience working in government and nonprofit organizations to advance ambitious, practical, evidence-based policy solutions. In the Governor’s Policy Office in Pennsylvania, she helped develop and implement a historic $100 million package of education and workforce improvements. In Maryland, ML served as Chief of Staff at the state human services agency. At the national nonprofit Benefits Data Trust, ML led a team that helped over 500,000 low income children and adults gain access to WIC and other public benefits. She also directed Penn’s Cartographic Modeling Lab, an early innovator in online mapping to help solve urban and social problems. ML holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton. Reach ML at 215-563-5848 ext. 291 or mlwernecke at childrenfirstpa.org.
Mazz Whitaker, Human Resources Specialist
Prior to joining Children First, Mazz spent 25 years working for the regulatory affairs division of a large pharmaceutical research organization. Her responsibilities included building a global vendor/supplier program, directing the laboratory facility inspection program (25 sites in six countries), and writing and managing Quality Policies for the Regulatory division. Her experience with regulatory compliance and document management prepared her well for her engagement with Children First. Mazz has a BFA in theatre set design and attended the PA Academy of Fine Art to study painting. Peppered in-between her corporate career, Mazz became a board certified cytotechnologist, and owned and operated a small eclectic restaurant in Mt Airy. Mazz is semi-retired since 2020 and spends her free time playing the mandolin and pickleball, perpetually renovating her Mt. Airy house. Reach Mazz at mazzw at childrenfirstpa.org.