Staff

Brenda Palms Barber : Executive Director

Brenda Palms Barber

Executive Director

Brenda Palms Barber has been the NLEN Executive Director since its founding in 1999. She has a Master of Science degree in nonprofit management from the Spertus Institute. Under her leadership, NLEN has grown from two to 20 employees, launched the Sweet Beginnings social enterprise, generated an annual budget in excess of $2.4 million, and received numerous awards including one of the first MacArthur Foundation Awards for Creative and Effective Institutions in 2006 and the prestigious 2015 Bank of America Neighborhood Builders Award and 2012 Chicago Neighborhood Development Award - Special Recognition. Brenda is a 2008 Aspen Institute Ideas Fellow. In 2013, Seventh District Congressman Danny Davis awarded her with the Cardiss Collins Trailblazer Award. Brenda has raised the national profile of NLEN through national media including CNN, the NBC Today Show, CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley, and a recent TEDWomen Documentary. In 2008, she attended the Harvard Business School’s Strategic Perspectives in Non-Profit Management program as a Roman Nomitch Fellow. Brenda is also a graduate of the Chicago Urban League’s nextOne program, an intensive business marketing entrepreneurial training program that included classes at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Brenda holds a Bachelor’s Degree in business management from the University of Phoenix.


 

Alexander Atkins : Digital Literacy Instructor

Alexander Atkins

Digital Literacy Instructor

Alex, Digital Literacy Instructor, is a team-player who brings tenacity, humor, patience, a unique perspective, and passion for economic empowerment. He worked with Dr. Alfred DeFreece and North Lawndale youth as a Mansfield Institute Social Justice Fellow facilitating service-learning. Adept at working toward success with others regardless of their background, Alex has worked with leaders in the capital markets to facilitate discursive forums surrounding financial regulation and coached first graders the basic fundamentals of lacrosse.


 

LeOné Champion : Human Resources Generalist and Administrative Coordinator

LeOné Champion

Human Resources Generalist and Administrative Coordinator

LeOné Champion, HR Generalist, implements NLEN’s human resources programs with a primary focus on talent acquisition, benefits, performance evaluation, and personnel transactions. Having formerly served as the Deputy Clerk to the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners, she brings to NLEN over 20 years of experience in Human Resources and Executive Administration for the processing and dissemination of board directives and policies and laws of local legislative branches. Her nonprofit experience is derived from her former commissioning as an Officer of the Salvation Army where she was assigned the shared tasks of managing social services programs and overseeing daily operations in Gary, Indiana and on Chicago’s South Side. LeOné is a graduate of King’s College in Charlotte, NC.


 

Pat Cosentino : Chief Financial Officer, Consultant

Pat Cosentino

Chief Financial Officer, Consultant

Pat Cosentino has been serving as NLEN’s Chief Financial Officer in a consulting capacity since 2006. She provides business advisory, accounting, and financial management services to small businesses, not-for-profits, and start-up enterprises with up to 100 employees. Pat has been in private practice since 1997 and has a client base of 60+ small business clients and 200+ individual clients for which she manages accounting systems and prepares corporate and individual tax returns. She is an attorney (JD with Distinction, John Marshall Law School, 1985) and Certified Public Accountant (1981).


 

Fritzlene Emile : Workforce Development Coach & Trainer

Fritzlene Emile

Workforce Development Coach & Trainer

Fritzlene holds a BA in Family Services and a Minor in Sociology from Eastern Illinois University. She is presently seeking to obtain a Masters in Human Services. Fritzlene was first introduced to NLEN days after completing her Bachelor’s degree and served as a volunteer. During her time at NLEN she coordinated and assisted over 150 individuals during the "Put Illinois to Work Initiative". She continued to venture within the social service sector and served as an Americorps member with South East Chicago Development Commission in the position of Income Support Specialist. In this position she assisted Southeast Chicagoland residents in obtaining public benefits to supplement their income. Most recently, Fritzlene  worked as a DHS TANF-Work First Career Development Specialist through Central States SER. Within this position, she assisted individuals receiving public assistance by the Department of Human Services in selecting a career path or switching careers.


Ana Encarnacion : Community Resource Assistant

Ana Encarnacion

Community Resource Assistant

Ana Encarnacion, Community Resource Assistant, first came to NLEN in 2014 as a volunteer and was hired full-time the following year. In her current role, Ana supports clients accessing the NLEN Resource Room, manages the NLEN switch board, and processes client enrollment and CEDA (LIHEAP) applications.


 

Alex Garcia : Director of Finance and Administration

Alex Garcia

Director of Finance and Administration

Alex Garcia has been serving as NLEN’s Director of Finance since August 2014.  He is responsible for overseeing the administrative department  Alex has over eight years of non-profit finance-related experience. He is the manager of a private CPA firm for which he manages the finances of a dozen multi-million dollar businesses, provides tax advice for businesses and individuals, and reviews all corporate and individual tax returns.


 

Yoni Kirsch : P55 Fellow/Program Assistant

Yoni Kirsch

P55 Fellow/Program Assistant

Yoni Kirsch is NLEN’s P55 Fellow/Program Assistant. Yoni grew up in Cleveland, Ohio as the fourth of five children. She graduated in 2016 from Princeton University, with a degree in Economics. Before beginning her academic studies, she spent a year in Ghana as part of Princeton's Bridge Year Program. Living with a homestay, learning the local language, and working at local organizations allowed her to be fully immersed in Ghanaian culture. While at Princeton, she was an active member of Petey Greene, a prison-tutoring program. Yoni is excited to continue working within the criminal justice system at the North Lawndale Employment Network next year. She also hopes to attend medical school in Fall 2017. While still undecided on a particular field of medicine, she plans to continue working with underserved populations. Yoni enjoys being outside and doing crossword puzzles.


Noah Temaner Jenkins : Development Consultant

Noah Temaner Jenkins

Development Consultant

Noah Temaner Jenkins has been providing grant writing services to the North Lawndale Employment Network for the last ten years, beginning with working with the Illinois Governor’s Office to secure the federal Going Home program for NLEN in 2002. She is a freelance organizational development and writing consultant for nonprofits that are engaged in workforce and community development, social justice, poverty alleviation, and higher education. Since 2002, Noah has helped clients, through her grant writing, to raise more than $8 million from local, state, and federal government, and various private foundations and corporations. She is adjunct faculty at UIC’s College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs and at the Spertus Institute. She holds a Master of Urban Planning and Policy and a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish, both from the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa.


 

Ben Levenson : Workforce Coach

Ben Levenson

Workforce Coach

Ben Levenson, Workforce Coach, first came to NLEN as our Princeton Project 55 Fellow and Program Assistant. He graduated from Princeton University in 2013 and comes to NLEN by way of the Princeton Project 55 Fellowship, a public interest fellowship for recent graduates. He most recently worked at New York City Outward Bound Schools, leading educational camping trips for New York City public school students. Before that he was a Princeton in Asia Teaching Fellow in Thailand. He is particularly interested in working to enact racial justice and end mass incarceration in the US.


 

Gustavo Martinez : Financial Coach

Gustavo Martinez

Financial Coach

Prior to joining NLEN, Gustavo worked for the City of Chicago as a Workers Compensation Claims Adjuster. He has also served as an Art Instructor for After School Matters at a high school in the Northwest side of Chicago, and as a graphic designer and instructor for the Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center in Hermosa, working with neighborhood teens to design and execute a mural based on their own socioeconomic and cultural experiences. Gustavo is inspired by social justice organizations looking to empower marginalized communities and address environmental justice. He previously worked as an organizer for both the Coalition of Immokalee Workers/Student Farmworker Alliance, which fights for fair wages in the fields, and the Chiapas Media Project, located in southern Mexico, which provides videography training to autonomous indigenous communities in order for them to document their own experience. He is currently pursuing his BA at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In his spare time, he enjoys children's book illustration and digital art.


Robert Miller : Chief Operations Officer, Sweet Beginnings

Robert Miller

Chief Operations Officer, Sweet Beginnings

Robert Miller recently joined Sweet Beginnings, LLC as Chief Operating Officer. He brings more than 20 years of management experience in industrial supply distribution. He is a successful business leader with a track record for designing and implementing initiatives that improve business performance. Areas of expertise include employee development, organizational development, continuous improvement, change management, and leadership development. Over a 20-year career with W.W. Grainger he held various operations and management positions. Most recently, he is founder and CEO of Performance Focused Consulting and Coaching, a management consulting firm that helps small and mid-size businesses improve their performance by developing their people and improving their processes. He is Adjunct Professor at DeVry University where he teaches business management. He holds a MBA with a Human Resources Emphasis from Keller Graduate School of Business.


Laurie Neal : Digital Literacy Instructor

Laurie Neal

Digital Literacy Instructor

Laurie Neal is a graduate of Jones Commercial High School and an alumni of DeVry University majoring in Computer Information Systems.  Laurie has worked numerous jobs including for the United States Postal Service as a NTE Clerk and Chicago Public Schools, teaching elementary students digital literacy where they got the bug to get more involved with computers, and under the Mayor of Riverdale (Deon Dean). While attending DeVry, made the Dean’s list for accomplishing straight A’s on course record. In her current role as AmeriCorps volunteer and Digital Literacy Instructor, Laurie teaches daily computer classes to in NLEN’s Resource Room and instructs the U-Turn Permitted Express job readiness class.


Michelle Parker : Senior Financial Coach

Michelle Parker

Senior Financial Coach

Michelle Parker, Senior Financial Coach, works one-on-one with clients to help them develop budgets, build their credit, and reach their financial goals. Michelle first came to NLEN in 2013 to assist clients in enrolling in health insurance plans through the Affordable Care Act and then as an Resource and Employability coach. Her previous experience in community relations and health care includes serving as Community Outreach Specialist at Family Health Network and as a Subsidy Specialist at Knowledge Learning Corporation. Michelle holds an associate’s degree in Social Work from Kennedy King College and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Human Services at Capella University.


 

Cristian Petre : Head Beekeeper, Sweet Beginnings

Cristian Petre

Head Beekeeper, Sweet Beginnings

Head beekeeper Cristian Petre is responsible for managing Sweet Beginnings’ 131 hives in four apiaries in the Chicago area.  With more than 20 years of beekeeping experience in Eastern Europe and the United States, Cris’s knowledge of his sweet profession is unsurpassed.  An active member of the Illinois State Beekeepers Association and the Windy City Beekeepers, Cris will continue Sweet Beginnings’ approach of sustainable and chemical-free beekeeping. In addition to his position with Sweet Beginnings, Cris maintains 15 hives for personal use and owns a business:  Bee Removal and Relocation.


 

Kristi Relaz : Moving Forward Bridge Instructor & Career Coach

Kristi Relaz

Moving Forward Bridge Instructor & Career Coach

Kristi Relaz is NLEN’s new Moving Forward Bridge Instructor & Career Coach.  Kristi double majored in English and Spanish Language and Literature at Western Illinois University, where she also studied abroad at the University of Guadalajara in Mexico. Soon after graduating, she obtained her certificate to teach English as a second language. She went on to teach ESL in Costa Rica and Chicago and later transitioned to the Program Coordinator of English Volunteers for Change in Costa Rica, which is a project of the ALIARSE Foundation-a nonprofit organization that contributes to improve healthcare, education, the environment, and local development in the country. After returning to Chicago, she volunteered with LIFT in Pilsen and worked as Program Assistant for the Member Education & Training Center at Service Employees International Union. She most recently served as the Program Instructor for the WIOA Career Readiness Program with Howard Area Community Center in Rogers Park, with a focus on youth clients between 16-24 years old. There she provided one-on-one case management services, created and led job readiness workshops, connected clients to other community resources, coordinated subsidized and unsubsidized job placements, and also provided post-secondary education services and opportunities. Kristi is currently working on a Master of Nonprofit Administration at North Park University and just earned my Graduate Certificate in Nonprofit Management last October.


Ramonda Roberts : Finance and Administration Supervisor

Ramonda Roberts

Finance and Administration Supervisor

Ramonda Roberts, Accounting Supervisor, is responsible for bookkeeping, coordinating audits, check requests, and managing financial information in QuickBooks. She brings 15 years of accounting experience to NLEN and has a Paralegal Certificate from DePaul University (2013).


 

Daniel Rossi : Evaluation and Innovation Manager

Daniel Rossi

Evaluation and Innovation Manager

Daniel Rossi, Evaluation and Innovation Manager, provides leadership and strategic direction to NLEN program evaluation and data management projects. Daniel brings six years of direct service experience to NLEN, as well as experience in federal and local government. Prior to joining the NLEN team, Daniel completed two years of AmeriCorps service and worked as an HIV/AIDS test counselor and educator. Daniel holds a Bachelor's degree in Philosophy from Illinois Wesleyan University and earned his Masters of Public Affairs from Indiana University in 2013.


 

Derrick Sanders : Clinical Workforce Development Coach and Trainer

Derrick Sanders

Clinical Workforce Development Coach and Trainer

Derrick Sanders, Clinical Workforce Development Coach and Trainer, has specialized in employment training and clinical services for citizens returning from incarceration since 2005.Prior to joining the NLEN staff full-time in 2013, for several years Derrick facilitated the Anger Management component of U-Turn Permitted. In his current role, he provides one-on-one workforce coaching to U-Turn Permitted participants, facilitates portions of the U-Turn Permitted training program, and coordinates the U-Turn Permitted Alumni Association. Derrick brings experience as a clinical coordinator and in curriculum implementation to NLEN, is a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor, a Certified Anger Management Specialist Level II, and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Applied Behavioral Science from National Louis University.

 

Mark L. Sanders, II : Director of Business Development

Mark L. Sanders, II

Director of Business Development

Mark Sanders, Director of Business Development devises and implements strategies and tactics that result in workforce attachment, employment retention, career advancement, target-wage attainment, and increased earnings for NLEN program participants. Mark is responsible for establishing and maintaining productive, mutually beneficial relationships with business-sector employers resulting in the capture of viable employment opportunities for NLEN program participants. Mark has worked as an educator, mentor, and youth advocate for most of his career with the Illinois Math and Science Academy, the Illinois Department of Corrections Juvenile Justice Division, and Lawrence Hall Youth Services. Mark holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Morehouse College and a Master of Science in Nonprofit Management at Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning and Leadership.


 

Fred Schroeder : Program Assistant

Fred Schroeder

Program Assistant

Fred Schroeder, NLEN’s new Program Assistant at the Flournoy location, says his truest calling in life is serving. He has extensive experience volunteering at Word for the World Ministries International and the West Side Cultural Arts Council. He is also a founding member of the Chicago Chess Academy, an organization focusing on mentoring Chicago’s youth through chess. On Friday, September 2nd, Fred graduated NLEN’s U-Turn Permitted Express Program. Since graduating, he has worked tirelessly to expand his knowledge and skill set in the administrative field. Since September of 2016, he has been a program assistant and energy Service technician at NLEN’s Financial Opportunity Center, garnering nothing but high praise from supervisors and coworkers alike. Fred is looking forward to helping provide the same opportunities that changed his life through NLEN.


Joseph Smith : Maintenance Technician

Joseph Smith

Maintenance Technician

Joseph first came to NLEN as a U-Turn Permitted participant in June 2012. After graduating from the program, Joseph was soon hired as NLEN’s maintenance technician, responsible for internal and external upkeep of the NLEN building and lawn. Prior to coming to NLEN, Joseph worked for five years as a cook and also brings experience in maintenance, loading and labor. Joseph is currently pursuing his GED at Malcolm X College.


 

Terry Soto : Outreach Coordinator/Workforce Development Coach

Terry Soto

Outreach Coordinator/Workforce Development Coach

Terry Soto, Outreach Coordinator/Workforce Development Coach, has worked with the NLEN racial equity initiative since April 2011. Terry’s professional background is primarily in training and curriculum development in both the corporate and nonprofit sectors. In 2010, NLEN retained Terry as a consultant to capture in writing the nearly 10-year-old existing curriculum of the U-Turn Permitted training program. She then collaborated with staff to revise the curriculum to include measurable objectives and a broader scope of workforce development exercises, and capped their efforts by creating the program’s first participant workbook. In 2011, Terry developed the racial healing component of UTP and co-facilitates it monthly. Terry is a member of the Racial Justice Committee of the YWCA-Evanston/North Shore and has participated extensively in racial justice training sessions with Wisconsin YWCA’s, Pacific Education Group, and Applied Research Center.


 

Pauline Sylvain : Financial Opportunity Center Program Director

Pauline Sylvain

Financial Opportunity Center Program Director

Pauline Sylvain, Financial Opportunity Center Program Director, coordinates all program activities relating to financial literacy, supportive services, digital literacy and the Resource Room. Pauline previously served NLEN as an Income Support Specialist and Financial Coach before being promoted to Program Director. She has also held positions with the Southeast Chicago Development Commission and Cook County Juvenile Probation. Pauline has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and is pursuing a master’s degree in political and justice studies at Governors State University.


 

Lauren Wesley : Director of Development

Lauren Wesley

Director of Development

Lauren Wesley, Director of Development, brings over 10 years of experience in marketing, public relations, and development. Prior to joining NLEN, Lauren worked in development for a youth empowerment organization in Chicago's North Lawndale, Pilsen, and Lower West Side communities. She also served as a program and curriculum consultant to an organization that focuses on teen pregnancy and sexual health. A published author and advocate for social justice, Lauren has co-authored a text book on sexual health and published articles on the intersection of race and gender in national journals. Before transitioning into the nonprofit sector, Lauren successfully managed accounts for national and international consumer brands. She also worked as a marketing director and reporter for several magazines and newspapers. Lauren holds a M.Ed. and M.A. in clinical psychology from Widener University and the Chicago School of Professional Psychology respectively. She holds a B.A. from Xavier University of Lousiana.


Jose Wilson : Director of Workforce Programs & Clinical Services

Jose Wilson

Director of Workforce Programs & Clinical Services

José M. Wilson is the Director of Workforce Programs and Clinical Services. He is responsible for the operational success of NLEN's U-Turn Permitted programming, ensuring seamless team management and development, program delivery, quality control, and evaluation. He also co-facilitates U-Turn Permitted and was instrumental in developing the Racial Healing project including NLEN's nationally recognized innovation, Building Bridges and Building Connections, which fosters an honest dialogue between community and police about policing. José represents NLEN in the North Lawndale Restorative Justice hub and has 15 years of director experience with Big Brothers and Sisters of Sedgwick County (Wichita, KS), Literacy Volunteers of Illinois and Hands on Atlanta. José is a Certified Anger Management Specialist and has over 20 years of specialized training in conflict resolution, community consensus building, team building, cultural competency and sensitivity training from some of the best nationally recognized community development organizations. An all-American college student-athlete, he earned his BS in Criminal Justice from Witchita State University and a Masters of Science degree in Mental Health Counseling from Walden University.


 


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Sweet Beginnings