Donna Cooper, 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 Government 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 dot org.
Judy Adamson, 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 dot org.
Kenya Blackstone, MSW, 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 dot 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 dot org.
Marcy Boroff, Grants Officer
In her role as Grants Officer, Marcy builds on her experience working with communities, institutions, governmental organizations, funders and others to improve access to health care, education and jobs with family sustaining wages. From working with pediatric and prenatal clinics to improve access to healthcare in Baltimore and creating a framework with and for community-based organizations to work with the School District of Philadelphia to leading the Community Health Worker Program at Jefferson Health, collaborating with community members and organizations has been at the core of her work. As a relationship builder, she understands the need to engage and build trust with partners and key stakeholders and ensure everyone’s voices are heard. These experiences will inform her work as the Grants Officer to ensure sustainable funding across programs. Reach Marcy at 215-563-5848 ext. 421 or marcyb at childrenfirstpa dot 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 dot 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 dot org.
Kate Fox, DrPH (c), MPH, Behavioral Health Policy Coordinator
Kate is passionate about the intersection of mental health and public health, advancing opportunities to better align systems so that people in need of support may be better served. Prior to Children First, Kate spent ten years working in public service at Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS). 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. 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 dot org.
Steven Fynes, Administrative Director
Steven’s work focuses on maintaining IT infrastructure and office environment including the Every Action database, Office 365 administration, keeping 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. As the primary coordinator of Children First’s major events, Steven works with staff and 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 dot org.
Shirlee Howe, 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 dot 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 masters in social policy in 2023. Reach Maggie at 215-563-5848 ext. 351 or maggiek at childrenfirstpa dot org.
Amy J. Kobeta, Communications Director
Amy brings decades of experience in advocacy communications and organizing. She was the Vice President of Arizona’s statewide child advocacy organization, Children’s Action Alliance, from 2007 to 2015 where she managed traditional 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 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 moved to East Kensington in October 2020. Reach Amy at 215-563-5848 ext. 231 or amyk at childrenfirstpa dot org.
Symbol Lai, Ph.D., Philadelphia Mobilization and Policy Director
Symbol is the Philadelphia Mobilization and Policy Director, supporting coalitions of out-of-school-time (OST) providers and the Read by 4th initiative. She is also leading Children First’s advocacy efforts in the Philadelphia School District, City Council, and municipal administration. Symbol 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 dot org.
Brian Lang, 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. Brian recently joined the team at Children First as Deputy Director where he’ll work to improve systems and processes to increase the organization’s overall impact. Previously, Brian was a member of the leadership team at The Food Trust, where he served as Director of Healthy Food Access and oversaw initiatives that provided grants, technical assistance, and resources to people and businesses to improve access to nutritious food. Among his many accomplishments during 19 years with The Food Trust, Brian 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; 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; and started many of the agency’s beloved farmers markets in the Philadelphia region. Brian holds a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the Fels Institute for Government at the University of Pennsylvania and is eager to bring his skills to Children First. Reach Brian at 215-514-5010 or brianl at childrenfirstpa dot org.
Kyle McMillen, Early Childhood Education Civic Engagement Coordinator
In his role as the Early Childhood Education Civic Engagement Coordinator, Kyle brings his expertise in education and political campaigns to Children First to ensure that the needs of children are represented in future policy. Kyle began his career in education in his home state of Michigan, where he spent time as a substitute teacher and after-school program coordinator. During that time he also began his work in community organizing and electoral politics, where he was a political team member for the successful U.S. Senate campaign of Gary Peters of Michigan along with work as a campus organizer for NextGen Climate Action. Kyle then moved to California to obtain a master’s degree in Education from the University of California, Riverside to broaden his expertise in education policy and advocacy. While there, he also continued his campaign work acting as a field organizer for a successful voter registration drive leading into the 2016 election cycle. The dual passions of education and political organizing led to his most recent role as an Outreach Director with the non-profit Educators for Excellence, where Kyle organized teachers in South Los Angeles to fight for a more equitable school system. Reach Kyle at 215-563-5848 ext. 161 or kylem at childrenfirstpa dot org.
Mai Miksic, Early Childhood Education Policy Director
Mai leads the early childhood advocacy, including coordinating and working with the state-wide coalition for child care Start Strong PA. 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. Prior to joining Children First, Mai was the senior research analyst at the Day Care Council of New York (DCCNY), where her research advocated for early childhood programs across New York City. Mai’s research has focused on evaluating an early childhood career ladder program, determining the cost of pay parity for early childhood educators from community-based organizations, and advocating for community-based early childhood programs in New York City’s Housing Authority (NYCHA) buildings. Other previous research examined the effects of No Child Left Behind on children of immigrants and the black-white achievement gap. She comes from an immigrant family and attended Head Start as a child. Her mother was also a family child care provider. She lives in Havertown, PA with her husband and two young children. Reach Mai at 215-563-5848 ext. 181 or maim at childrenfirstpa dot org.
Mildred Mendez, Health Insurance Enroller (Spanish-speaker)
Mildred came out of retirement to help parents obtain medical insurance for their children. Mildred was first recruited as a volunteer and then joining the staff as a part time-worker 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 dot org.
Dan O’Brien, Education Coordinator for Bucks County
Dan was born and raised in Levittown, PA, where he currently resides with his family. Dan was a teacher until 2018 when he decided to leave the classroom. Inspired by his students, Dan then entered politics and government to help change a broken education system and fight for the most vulnerable. Following his teaching career, Dan was the Campaign Coordinator for a state senate race in Bucks County. Immediately prior to coming to Children First, he was the Director for Local Government Relations for a current Bucks County state senator. Dan’s work includes advocating for expanded access to affordable child care and to ensure Pennsylvania does its part to provide a high quality education for all children. Reach Dan at 215-630-9592 or dano at childrenfirstpa dot org.
Anjanette Perry, Child HealthWatch HelpLine Coordinator
Anjanette’s focus is to help parents of uninsured and underinsured children apply for health insurance through Medicaid or CHIP. Prior to joining Children First, Anjanette worked with Child Care Information Services (CCIS) for over 15 years helping low-income families apply for subsidized childcare. Her first position was with CCIS West/Southwest as a Resource and Referral Specialist helping parents complete subsidy applications, provide available resource and referrals and attend community outreach events. Through Anjanette’s hard work and dedication she also held the position of Senior Resource and Referral Specialist and Parent Services Manager. Anjanette also worked at CCIS Northwest as a TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) Eligibility Specialist where she reviewed, analyzed, and processed intakes and applications based on the PA Dept. of Public Welfare eligibility requirements. 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 dot org.
Inella Ray, Director of Parent Advocacy & Engagement
As the Director of Parent Advocacy & Engagement, Inella works with parents across southeastern Pennsylvania to inform policy recommendations centered on children. As a Philadelphia native and a proud product of the Philadelphia School District, Inella understands the power of what happens when we invest today in tomorrow’s generation. This understanding has led her to build a career around protecting the potential of those most vulnerable amongst us – children – through advocacy and service. Prior to Children First, Inella served as the Director of School Operations at KIPP Lanning Square Middle School in Camden NJ, where she oversaw all operational and non-instructional functions so that the instructional team could focus on driving student achievement. Before that, Inella held positions across the educational space ranging from out-of-school time programming to teacher recruitment to youth development within Afterschool All-Stars, KIPPNJ, Snider Hockey, Teach for America, and Upward Bound! Inella holds a Bachelor of Business Administration from Temple University’s Fox School of Business, where she majored in Economics. She lives in West Philadelphia with her partner. Reach Inella at 215-563-5848 ext. 151 or inellar at childrenfirstpa dot 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 dot org.
Gail Smith, Finance and Human Resources Administrator
For over 25 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 dot org.
Parker Thomas, 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 dot org.
ML Wernecke, Director, PA Charter School Performance Center
ML has over 30 years of policy experience with government and nonprofit organizations, advancing ambitious, practical, evidence-based solutions that improve governance, performance and fair allocation and utilization of tax dollars to meet the needs of citizens. In a senior policy position in the Pennsylvania Governor’s Office, ML led the development of a historic $100 million package of education and workforce improvements that were enacted and implemented statewide. In her most recent position as the Director of Policy at Benefits Data Trust, ML crafted highly targeted new policies that were adopted in six states, benefiting over 500,000 low income family members. ML’s tenure as a senior team member of the Pennsylvania Governor Office and Chief of Staff for the Maryland Department of Human Resources affords her a unique and tested understanding of how to advance public sector reforms that align governance, financing and accountability to support sound delivery of high quality government services effecting children and families. ML began her career at Wharton Econometrics where she was part of the forecasting team on the international side of the company. She also directed Penn’s Cartographic Modeling Lab, an early innovator in online mapping to help solve urban and social problems. ML graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Pennsylvania and earned a graduate degree from the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. ML’s expertise includes highly technical legislative and regulatory review and budget analysis, preparing persuasive testimony and reports, crafting sound policy, and overseeing implementation – all skills that will now be put to use to improve Pennsylvania’s education sector with a special focus on the charter school system. Reach ML at 215-563-5848 ext. 291 or mlwernecke at childrenfirstpa dot 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 6 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, playing pickleball, building picture frames for family and friends and perpetually renovating her house. Mazz is a serious advocate for retirement, in other words, a general nuisance to the working population. Reach Mazz at firstname.lastname@example.org.