Meet Our Session Presenters

Our skilled trainers have a wide range experience, expertise and certifications. See below to learn more about our session presenters. This page will be updated as sessions are confirmed.

Alan Meca, PhD

 Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology, UTSA


Alan Meca, Ph.D. (él/he/him) is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He received his Ph.D. in Developmental Science from Florida International University in 2014 and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Miami. Broadly, his expertise is in identity development, acculturation, and positive youth development. Although his research has focused broadly on identity development, most of his work has been on cultural identity development and acculturation among ethnic/racial minoritized youth, particularly among Hispanic/Latinx populations.  Towards this end, his research agenda has focused on identity development and its effects on mental health, health risk behaviors, and educational achievement.  In pursuit of this research agenda, which has strayed away from the pervasive deficit perspective that is often utilized when youth--and marginalized youth in particular--Meca has published over 90 peer-reviewed manuscripts focused on personal, ethnic/racial, and national identity as key developmental and cultural assets to be leveraged for promoting positive development. His research agenda is focused on refining measures of cultural identity, understanding the processes that govern how ethnic/racial minority navigate their cultural environment (e.g., code-switching, cultural frame-switching), and identifying ways we can support youth throughout the transition to adulthood.

Melanie Cawthon, CNP, MS

Co-Founder/Executive Director, disABILITYsa

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Melanie Cawthon, Co-Founder/Executive Director for disABILITYsa, Ms. Cawthon's work has largely focused on the advancement of people with disabilities in the San Antonio community and the development of programs that promote greater inclusion and independence. In 2007, she co-founded and transitioned the organization to an independent 501(c)3 in 2016, becoming the organization’s Executive Director, continuing historic programs while developing new programs and participating in community planning efforts that advance the inclusion and engagement of people with disabilities in San Antonio. Ms. Cawthon holds a BA in Business Management from UT San Antonio and an MS in Nonprofit Mgt. from Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio. Her professional training includes certification as a Certified Nonprofit Professional and, most recently, completed an intensive training program in Community Based Participatory Research conducted through the University of Michigan.

Neda Norouzi, M.Arch, MURP, B.Env.D

Asst. Professor of Architecture, UTSA

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Neda Norouzi is an assistant professor of Architecture at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). She believes that architecture should benefit everyone and that human-centered design can be used as a tool to allow input from people in society who may otherwise be unheard. She earned her Master’s in Architecture with her thesis focused on designing intergenerational centers for older adults and children, Master’s in Urban and Regional Planning with emphasis on community impact on design process, and her Ph.D. with an interdisciplinary dissertation focused on the incorporation of Human Development theories in the Architectural Process of Designing for Vulnerable People of all Ages and Abilities. She extends this inclusive approach in the classroom, sharing her passion for purposeful design with her students. Dr. Norouzi’s research focuses on the impact of the built environment on people’s quality of life. Her university degrees in addition to her certificates in gerontology and healthcare facilities planning and design, afford her the opportunity to exemplify a cross-disciplinary understanding of the influence of the built environment on human health, well-being, and performance. She has extensive experience working with practitioners and researchers from different fields and conducting interdisciplinary research to identify architectural solutions for societal problems. Dr. Norouzi’s research is focused on universal design for people with different abilities, intergenerational design, aging-in-place, and mental health care centers.

Jasmin Dean, MM

Founder and Executive Director, Celebrate Dyslexia

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Jasmin Dean is the founder and Executive Director of Celebrate Dyslexia, a non-profit organization fostering a community to celebrate, educate, and empower the 1 in 5 with dyslexia.  She is also the founder and board chair for Celebrate Dyslexia Schools, a place where the entire ecosystem provides strength-based and evidence-based opportunities for every stakeholder in the dyslexia conversation to allow them to learn to read, teach children to read, and support those they love.  Creating a portfolio of high-profile strength-based events, assisting the education community in efforts to bring evidence-based practices to every classroom, and including efforts on medical accountability in this all-important conversation with parents and children alike, her efforts are to close the action gap for all those with dyslexia and the people that love, educate and employ them.  Dean is impacting the groundwater of this conversation by collaborating with local higher education officials and working to change the medical code on a national level to remove barriers to access to information and intervention for every stakeholder.

Debbie Jennings, DNP, MSN, RN, CENP

Founder, Doin Well, LLC

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With more than two decades of nursing experience across diverse healthcare sectors, Debbie Jennings has demonstrated a profound commitment to healthcare education. Her passion lies in educating young individuals about navigating the complexities of the healthcare system, empowering them to express themselves effectively and establish personal boundaries. Debbie started a health literacy company called Doin Well, LLC with an approach through multiple platforms, including in-person and virtual workshops, one-on-one conversations, and YouTube. Youth who have aged out of foster care are Debbie’s primary focus; however, this has carried over to other vulnerable populations.

At UT Health San Antonio, Debbie teaches Health Economics and Policy in the graduate program and works on standing up rural health hubs focused on foster care youth and their families. Fascinated by policy, she serves as the Chair of the Government Affairs Committee for Texas Nurses Association, District 8.

Outside of work, she enjoys hiking with her dog Dublin, throwing dinner parties, and watching football.

Denver Brown, PhD

 Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology, UTSA

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Dr. Denver Brown is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, with a joint appointment in the Department of Kinesiology. He oversees the Infant, Child and Youth Health (INCH) Lab at UTSA. After graduating from the Ph.D. program in the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, Denver went on to complete Postdoctoral Fellowships in the Mental Health and Physical Activity Research Centre at the University of Toronto and the Department of Family Medicine at McMaster University. The overarching goal of his research program is to improve the health and well-being of children and youth by helping them to adopt and maintain physically active lifestyles. His research program focuses on two streams of inquiry directed towards understanding: 1) facilitators and barriers to physical activity adoption and maintenance; and 2) the mental health implications of engaging in a physically (in)active lifestyle

Kane Jaggers, LMSW

Sr. Regional Director, SJRC Texas | Belong

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Kane Jaggers is an alumnus of the Worden School of Social Work and takes pride in empowering youth to find their voice in order to promote positive change. Her experience in social work varies from working with teenage mothers and their children, establishing a Family Engagement Program, and working with children in the Texas Department of Family Protective Services care. Additionally, Mrs. Jaggers has her Child Care Administration license, is a Licensed Child Placing Administrator, and is a Trauma Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) Practitioner. She is currently obtaining her Doctorate in Social Work through Capella University. She has facilitated trainings for community partners, schools, and at the Texas Child Care Administration Conference with topics ranging from “Engaging Families in the Permanency Process” to “Back to Basics: Understanding Ethics and Dilemmas in the School System.

Mrs. Jaggers is honored to work as the Sr. Regional Director for SJRC Texas| Belong and has dedicated her life to working with children in the foster care system for 15 years. Mrs. Jaggers has served as the staff liaison for the an agency’s Resident Council, developed Youth Encouraging Advocacy and Hope, a Youth Advisory Board and implemented the No Place for Hate© campaign through the Anti-Defamation League of America.

Rhonda BeLue, PhD

Professor in the Department of Public Health and Associate Dean for Community Engagement and Partnerships, UTSA

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Rhonda BeLue PhD CQM/OE is a Professor in the Department of Public Health at the University of Texas, San Antonio and Associate Dean for Community Engagement and Partnerships. Her work focuses on improving health care access and promoting health in families and organizations in diverse communities in the US and global south. She takes a holistic approach to advocating for social justice, including community-based participatory research approaches to addressing health disparities and participating and supporting for diverse cultural arts activities and serving local organizations that serve diverse communities.   She also a dancer, having performed in several professional African dance companies, and a fiber/jewelry artist.

Nicole Nguyen, BS

East Regional Director, SJRC Texas | Belong

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Nicole Nguyen is an alumnus of Texas State University with a Bachelors of Science majoring in Family and Child Development. Her passion has been in supporting children and helping families function as a healthy unit. Her experience working with unique family units started 12 years ago when she joined the SJRC Texas Team at their New Braunfels campus working with pregnant and parenting teens. The youth placed at SJRC Texas were placed there by the state after the removal from their guardian(s) due to abuse, abandonment, or neglect. As a Therapeutic Home Supervisor, Nicole helped these youth strive to break the cycle of abuse with their own family and become successful citizens in their community. Connecting them to local resources and building connections in their community was an important part of that.

While Nicole loved her time at SJRC Texas the community she was most connected to was the one that helped raise her. Upon moving back to her hometown of Calhoun County she knew she wanted to continue work that would help support youth and her community. She took the role as the Calhoun County Independent School District Child Nutrition Director. She worked to ensure that students had access to healthy and nutritious meals during the school year, after school and during the summer. This role led to her being an intricate part of her community as a first responder during Hurricane Harvey and COVID.

With news of Community Based Care rolling out in Texas this allowed an opportunity for Nicole to return to SJRC Texas under the Belong division. Currently, Nicole is honored to be the East Regional Director overseeing 7 counties including her home county of Calhoun. In this role she has had the opportunity to work alongside these great communities to help bring awareness to the needs of youth in the child welfare system.

Cynthia Ramirez, BAS

Community Liaison, SJRC Texas | Belong

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Cynthia Ramirez has worked in a variety of settings in social services for the past 25 years. Her journey began at a local Child Advocacy Center where she facilitated forensic interviews and specialized in working with youth who had experienced sexual and physical abuse. Her time as a CASA Supervisor has provided her additional knowledge and insight into the impact the child welfare system has on the greater society as she advocated for children and families through her county. While Ms. Ramirez took a short break from child welfare to lead disaster recovery efforts after Hurricane Harvey, she remained connected to child welfare through volunteerism at the Harbor Children’s Alliance Center working the hotline and answering crisis calls. Ms. Ramirez currently serves as the Community Liaison for SJRC Texas|Belong and works on connecting resources in 7 rural communities to families and children in need through building community relationships and collaborating with others who want to play a role in keeping children safe.

Natalie Bradford, PhD

Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Public Health, UTSA

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Natalie Bradford, Postdoctoral fellow at UTSA, Department of Public Health, is a health services researcher who studies the connections between policy, place, and racism and how these structural factors affect healthcare access in underserved communities. Her work combines quantitative and qualitative methodologies, critical social theory, and creative writing to reimagine how data are used to support health equity. She has assisted community-based organizations in California, Illinois, and Texas with data collection, grant writing, and program evaluation.  She is also a poet, community organizer, and artist.

Maricarmen Esper, PhD, ME

Associate Professor, Mexican American Catholic College

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Dr. Maricarmen Esper, is a researcher on whole child education, social-emotional learning, and character development including culturally efficacious education.

She is an associate professor at the Mexican-American Catholic College. She is the host of the TV program "Flourishing in the Family" (Florenciendo en Familia in CTSA Channel 15, and the YouTube channel "Leaders Cultivating a Flourishing World". She has trained teachers, students, principals, and parents on whole-child education for more than 25 years internationally. She is the author of the book "How to Educate in Ethical Values" in Spanish.

Lorena Claeys, PhD, MCI, MEL

Director for Clinical Professional Experiences and Co-director of the Academy for Teacher Excellence Research Center (ATE) in the College of Education and Human Development, UTSA


Dr. Lorena Claeys is the Director for Clinical Professional Experiences and Co-director of the Academy for Teacher Excellence Research Center (ATE) in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She is also the director/co-PI of a Title V grant from the US Department of Education entitled Latino-Teacher Academy Learning Community (Latino-TALC). Claeys’ research interest includes teacher preparation, retention, motivation to teach culturally and linguistically diverse learners, and school-community-university collaborations. Claeys has co-authored several peer-reviewed articles and has been successfully awarded competitive grants. In 2016, she was recognized with the Texas Association for Bilingual Education’s TABE Honoree Award for Higher Education for her many years of commitment to the field of education, specifically to the education of ethnically, linguistically, and culturally diverse bilingual learners and teacher candidates.

Kimberly Sayers, LPC-S

Clinical Project Director, CIS-SA

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Kim Sayers is the Clinical Project Director for Communities In Schools of San Antonio and has worked for CISSA for over 14 years.  She is a Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor in the state of Texas and she has over 11 years of counseling experience, including six years of experience in supervising LPC Associates.   Kim has spent many years working with at-risk youth and their families and has coached teachers and administrators on how to appropriately respond to their student’s unique and challenging behavioral and emotional needs.  

Kim is well-versed in Trauma-Informed practices and is a Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) Practitioner through the Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development at Texas Christian University.  She also has specialized training in Mindfulness and Dialectical Behavior Therapy techniques and has provided numerous professional development trainings to professionals focusing on Ethics, Trauma-Informed practices, Mindfulness, and other mental health issues.

Melissa Williamson, EdD, CTP

Founder and CEO, At the Heart of Teaching, Learning, and Leadership

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Melissa Williamson, EdD, CTP, is a faculty member at The University of Texas at San Antonio and Odessa College. She is the founder and CEO of At the Heart of Teaching, Learning, and Leadership. She earned her doctoral degree in organizational leadership from Abilene Christian University. Melissa possesses an extensive career in early childhood education, leadership, family engagement, and trauma-informed practices. She was awarded the Susan Hargrove Trainer of the Year from the San Antonio Association for the Education of Young Children. As part of your community advocacy and master trainer for the Community Resilience Initiative, she co-chairs the South Texas Trauma-Informed Care Consortium's Early Care and Education Sector. In addition, Melissa is a certified leadership trainer for Maxwell Leadership. She has been an advocate for children and families for over 30 years.

Rebecca Juarez, LMSW

Assistant Professor of Practice, UTSA

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Being born and raised in San Antonio has given me a passion for living and serving in this beautiful community. I received my bachelor's and Master's of Social Work from Our Lady of the Lake University and have had the opportunity to work in a variety of roles in the field. Throughout this time I have worked with children and youth displaying challenging behaviors, survivors of intimate partner violence, several school districts in and around San Antonio, the Bexar County court system, as a campus social worker at a middle school, and now as an Assistant Professor of Practice with UTSA.

Across all of these roles, I have always had a passion for teaching and training and have focused on topics such as trauma and brain development, early childhood development, working with children and adolescents in the school setting, responding to challenging behaviors in the classroom, responding to suicidal ideation in children and youth, and other similar topics.

Michael Karcher, EdD, PhD

 Professor of Educational Psychology, UTSA 

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I am a Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio. I conducted research on school-based and cross-age peer mentoring and authored the Cross-age Mentoring Program (CAMP). I also conducted the first large-scale school-based mentoring, the Study of Mentoring in the Learning Environment (SMILE, 2003-2006) to estimate the effects of participation in school-based mentoring as delivered through the Communities in Schools of San Antonio program in twenty schools. I co-edited two editions of the Handbook of Youth Mentoring (2005 and 2014), was on the committee that developed the first Element of Effective Practice (EEP), and in 2020 co-authored a Supplement to the EEP focused on peer mentoring programs.

Lisa Ranallo, MA, CSC

School Counseling Consultant, ESC-20

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Lisa is a School Counseling Consultant serving 95 ISDs/charter schools in Region 20. She taught students in grades 5-8 for five years before becoming a certified school counselor; she worked at the elementary level for two years and at the high school level for 16 years. Currently, she provides training, resources, and support for school counselors and social workers.

Mackenzie Hart, PhD

Assistant Professor of School Psychology, UTSA

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Felicia Castro-Villarreal, PhD, LSSP

Associate Professor of School Psychology, UTSA

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Jasmine Victor, MA

Doctoral Candidate in the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies Program, UTSA

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Jasmine Victor is a doctoral candidate in the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies program at the University of Texas at San Antonio with an emphasis in Higher Education. She works as a researcher within UTSA’s Urban Education Institute and assists with research intended to improve the educational outcomes of San Antonio students. Her research interests include policies and practices that influence the development and trajectory of Black women in higher education; the well-being of Black faculty, staff, and students; student identity and leadership development.

Han Bum Lee, PhD

Assistant Professor of Research at the Department of Educational Psychology, UTSA and Director of Quantitative Research at the Urban Education Institute

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Han Bum Lee, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Research at the Department of Educational Psychology and Director of Quantitative Research at the Urban Education Institute ( Dr. Lee has research interests in understanding and evaluating the effectiveness of macro-level public policy and innovative experimental programs implemented to improve human capital, labor productivity, and economic self-sufficiency.

Victor Villarreal, PhD

Professor of School Psychology, UTSA

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Victor Villarreal, Ph.D., is a Professor of school psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio and a nationally certified school psychologist (NCSP) and licensed psychologist. His research interests include meta-science and practice in school psychology, including school-based screening and mental health services.

Sharon Nichols, BA, MA, PhD

Professor and Interim Director, Urban Education Institute & Chair of the Department of Educational Psychology, UTSA

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Sharon L. Nichols, Ph.D., is Professor and Interim Director of the Urban Education Institute. She also serves as Chair of the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She teaches graduate and undergraduate classes in learning theory, motivation, development, and research methods and has authored over three dozen books, journal articles and book chapters related to youth development, motivation, and education policy. She is the coauthor of Collateral damage: How high-stakes testing corrupts America’s schools (with D. C. Berliner, Harvard Education Press, 2007). Her current work focuses on the impact of test-based accountability on teachers, their instructional practices and adolescent motivation and development.  She is the past Vice President of Division 15 of the American Psychological Association and inaugural coeditor of new Division 15 journal, Educational Psychology for Policy and Practice.

Sebastian Sanders

Founder, The Sanders Hand

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Sebastian Sanders, aka "The Youth Principal," is a globally recognized motivational speaker, community leader, and the founder of The Sanders Hand. Based in Houston, Texas, Sebastian is dedicated to empowering at-risk youth for a brighter future. With a bachelor's degree in business administration management, Sebastian's career progressed rapidly from Sales District Manager at Pepsico to Network Operations Manager at Frito Lay, where he excelled in supply chain operations and retail sales leadership. In 2017, Sebastian established The Sanders Hand, a nonprofit organization impacting the lives of over 5,000 at-risk youth and college students in Texas and Oklahoma. Through programs such as Universal Basic Income (UBI) and the Young Billionaires Club, Sebastian aims to address income inequality and provide financial education to empower young individuals. He has also expanded his efforts internationally, bridging the technology education gap in Ghana. As an acclaimed public speaker and author, Sebastian inspires audiences with his talks on leadership, mentoring, and strategic digital marketing. With his vast experience and unwavering dedication, Sebastian continues to motivate and empower others to create a better future for themselves and their communities.

Barbara Bryan, LCSW-S

Field Manager, CIS-SA

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Barb Bryan obtained her graduation degree from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker Supervisor in the state of Texas. Barb previously worked as a Behavior Interventionist for 10 years. She worked as a Therapist for a private practice in a rural community and as a Therapist for a community mental health center. Additionally, Barb worked in the foster care system in Missouri and Kansas for 7 years in various capacities. She has experience working with children diagnosed with behavior disorders and training their caregivers in behavior management techniques. Barb loves helping adults and children see their own potential.

Barb has worked full-time with Communities in Schools of San Antonio since 2017. She currently works as a Field Manager in the SAISD School District.

Jonathan De Jesus, MA, LPC, NCC

Clinical Field Manager, CIS-SA

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Jonathan De Jesus, MA, LPC, NCC is a Clinical Field Manager with Communities In Schools of San Antonio. Jonathan has a Master’s Degree in Counseling and Guidance from Texas A&M University San Antonio and has been a Licensed Professional Counselor since 2017. He has worked for Communities In Schools of San Antonio for 10 years, starting as a site coordinator working primarily with middle school students. He has been in the Licensed Counselor role in primarily rural districts for the past four and a half years, most currently with Devine ISD providing mental health services for students. He now serves as a Field Manager over a cluster of SAISD high schools and clinical programs.

Nisi Bennett, LSS

All Heart Initiative

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Nisi is a multi-passionate Entrepreneur, Philanthropist, and Community Inclusion Advocate. She is a dedicated mother to five beautiful children, and her roles as a national speaker, serial entrepreneur, public health nurse, Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, and philanthropist are central to her identity. But at the core of her being is an unshakeable commitment to mental health awareness—a mission that drives her daily.

Her work is a symphony of multifaceted projects, programs, and businesses. However, her true calling resonates in the empowerment and well-being of individuals and communities. The path to success is paved with perseverance, alignment, and embracing our natural-born gifts, and it's through mental health education that we can unlock our fullest potential.

Maritza Garcia-Pulido, MS, LPC, NCC, CIMHP

Licensed Professional Counselor, CIS-SA

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Maritza Garcia-Pulido is a Licensed Professional Counselor and has worked with various populations including victims of crimes, individuals experiencing homelessness, undocumented minors, acute patients in psychiatric settings, couples, and families. In addition, she has done work as a crisis line operator providing emergency assistance for suicide, homicide, and psychosis. Maritza continues to serve at-risk populations through Communities in Schools of San Antonio where she is a therapist on the Domestic Violence team.