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Staff

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-AdamsonJudy 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.

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.

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.

Laurie Dow, Vulnerable Youth Policy Director

Laurie Dow is a committed public servant dedicated to the protection and well-being of children and families. After clerking in the Dependency Division of the Family Court of the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania, Laurie Joined the Child Welfare Unit of the Law Department of Philadelphia, where she rose through the ranks to become a Divisional Deputy City Solicitor. Laurie specialized in aggravated abuse and neglect cases and served on the multi-disciplinary Act 33 Child Fatality and Near Fatality Review Team. Prior to joining Children First, Laurie was a Director of Quality Assurance and Corporate Compliance for a children and youth residential care provider. Laurie has continued to be a resource to the child welfare community, through her training on issues related to child welfare, abuse, and neglect. Laurie holds a Juris Doctor and a Masters of Law degree in Transnational Law from Temple University Beasley School of Law. Reach Laurie at 215-563-5848 ext. 281 or lauried 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 non-profit community with special expertise in strategic planning, capital campaigns, government relations and individual major gift fundraising.  Caroline’s particular 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 served for the past several years 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.

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. He routinely assists all of  program directors on special projects, troubleshooting issues, and lending a hand when needed. Design and layout for all of Children First’s reports and policy briefs also fall under Steven. As the primary coordinator for Children First’s major events, Steven works with staff and volunteers, outside vendors and venues on rallies in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, the annual “Celebration of the Public Citizen for Children and Youth” and our gaming/technology event, “STEMCraft.”  Steven is a member of the Development Team focusing on individual and corporate fundraising and serves as the staff liaison to Children First’s 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 pre-k. 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 subsidy0eligible 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

Returning to Children First after interning as a high school student, Maggie is eager to get back to work where her love of policy began. Maggie spent the last four years earning her bachelor’s degree from Wellesley College, while pursuing opportunities at the Public Defender Association of Philadelphia and advocating for substance free/recovery services on her college campus. Maggie’s focus on Children First Health Policy Team is on our statewide coalition to end childhood lead poisoning in Pennsylvania. 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 more than 25 years of experience in advocacy communications and organizing. She specializes in designing communications materials that are easy to use, understand and share.  From 2007 to 2015, Amy was the Vice President of Children’s Action Alliance, Arizona’s leading child advocacy organization, 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, PhD., Philadelphia Mobilization and Policy Director

Symbol is excited to join the Children First staff as the Philadelphia Mobilization and Policy Director. In her position, she will be supporting coalitions of out-of-school-time (OST) providers and the Read by 4th initiative. She will also be 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 out-of-school-time 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.

Colleen McCauley, Health Policy Director

Colleen’s research leads the conversation in southeastern Pennsylvania and Harrisburg on children’s access to health care and health insurance issues. Her work on child health focuses on researching and advocating for improved access to health care, particularly among uninsured, undocumented families in Philadelphia and suburbs. Prior to joining Children First in 2001, Colleen was a nurse and former Assistant Director of the Abbottsford Community Health Center in Philadelphia. McCauley holds a Master’s degree in Public Health from Temple University. Reach Colleen at 215-563-5848 ext. 331 or colleenm 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)

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.

Essence Allen-Presley, Ed.D., Behavioral Health Policy Coordinator

Essence has two decades of experience in the education field. She founded The Education Institute for Early Intervention that trains non-educators to work with children with special needs and was most recently the Assistant Professor of Teaching and the Program Coordinator for Special Education and the Director of the Child Development Lab School at Widener University. Essence published The Influence of Attachment Theory Professional Development on the Day-to-Day Interactions between Early Childhood Professionals and Infants in Childcare Facilities in 2015 and has published articles and participated in studies relating to early childhood and special education. Essence earned her doctoral degree in Education Leadership from Saint Joseph University. She holds two master’s degrees, one in Urban and Regional Planning and in Special Education. She also holds a Special Education, K-12 Leadership, Special Education and Curriculum & Instruction Supervisory Certificates in the state of Pennsylvania. Reach Essence at 215-563-5848 ext. 321 or essenceap at childrenfirstpa dot org.

Inella Ray, Director of Parent Advocacy & Engagement

Inella is the Director of Parent Advocacy & Engagement at Children First, where she works with parents across Southeastern Pennsylvania to help inform policy recommendations that center the children of Pennsylvania. As a Philadelphia native and a proud product of the Philadelphia School District, Inella understands the power of what happens when we invest in tomorrow’s generation – today. 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. Prior to being a school administrator, 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.  In her spare time, Inella enjoys biking, reading, traveling and presently lives in West Philadelphia with her partner! Reach Inella at 215-563-5848 ext. 151 or inellar at childrenfirstpa dot org.

Jon Shanfelder, Child Policy Research Associate

In his role as a Child Policy Research Associate, Jon helps inform policy recommendations through the collection and analysis of data. Before joining Children First, he worked as a Research Assistant with the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, interned for the PLBC at the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, and interned for (you guessed it) Children First. Jon earned his Bachelor’s degree from Penn State and his Master’s degree in Social Policy from the University of Pennsylvania.  Reach Jon at 215-563-5848 ext. 131 or jons 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.

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.