Introducing the 2015-2016 VISTA Cohort!

Posted by on September 30, 2015

By Eden Kainer

By the last week of August, PHENND had officially welcomed and trained all of its newest members of the PHENND family, our PHENND VISTA Community Partnerships Coordinators! 16 AmeriCorps members in 16 schools, and three in three separate offices at the School District, to be exact. After their initial AmeriCorps VISTA Pre-Service Orientation (PSO), we spent a lot of time introducing them to PHENND network and preparing them for the hard work ahead during the school year. Their peripatetic training reflects the myriad of partnerships that define PHENND’s work. We met with the PHENND Steering Committee at University of Pennsylvania’s Houston Hall one day, and later we met the K-16 Advisory Board in the carriage house of the Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships at Drexel at 36th and Spring Garden. One day we all went to the Fleisher Art Memorial in South Philly hear about partnership work from our colleagues at SEPC, the Southeastern Philadelphia Collaborative. The VISTAs additionally got several opportunities to speak with alumni from last year’s cohort, to hear their reflections about the world of community partnership building. They also continue to benefit from the experience of the three brave VISTAs who have decided to stay on for a second term of service with PHENND.

As they did last year, the Office of Strategic Partnerships at the School District hosted an orientation to the intricacies of working with the SDP. On this day we met a huge variety of folks from different departments to understand a bit of the work they do. We look forward our overnight retreat all together at the Center for Environmental Transformation in Camden in October. Here we will dig in to explore the idea of building organic community relationships, get a chance to chat with the Camden Teen Eco-Interns, discuss community school strategies, and in the PHENND tradition, eat even more great food. Our VISTA cohort gets a little bigger each year, and each year we are impressed anew by the varied experience, dynamism, and intelligence of the members. Below are the individual bios of 2015-16 VISTAs.


Kevin Moran

This year Kevin will be working at the Office of Strategic Partnerships at the School District Building. He is originally from Baltimore and has lived in Philadelphia for the past four years where he recently graduated from Temple University with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics. After graduating in 2014 he worked as a program coordinator for Temple’s Pan African Studies Community Education Program (PASCEP). After his year of service with the Office of Strategic Partnerships he plans to attend law school and has interests in public interest/public advocacy. Some of his hobbies include camping, biking and playing/seeing live music.

Gabriella Latona

Originally from the suburbs of Philadelphia, Gabriella will be serving as the Community Partnerships Coordinator VISTA at Chester Arthur Elementary. She served as a City Year Corps member at Feltonville Arts and Sciences from 2014-2015. Gabriella is currently studying Communications at Temple University. She is passionate about baking, service, developing education reform, youth development and the arts.She plans to work with nonprofits and social media. Her favorite food is an Italian pasta called gnocchi.

Shanelle Patterson

Shanelle is from Reading, PA, and she studied psychology at Millersville University. She left Millersville in 2012 to participate volunteer service with NCCC Fema Corps in Vinton, IA, where she focused on disaster relief. After serving, she eventually relocated to Philadelphia in 2014 for the AmeriCorps VISTA Community Partnerships Coordinator position. She was placed at Meade Elementary School, and that is where she will remain for a second year (2015-16). Ms. Patterson is passionate about general volunteer work and service, and plans to work in the nonprofit sector. She loves her American pitbull and enjoys scary/horror movies.

William Fewer-Reed

William will serve as the School-Based Community Partnerships Coordinator at Cramp Elementary for the 2015-16 school year. He was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska, however he has spent the last few years living in Collingswood, New Jersey. He is a 2015 graduate from The College of New Jersey where he studied International Relations, and studied abroad in Argentina. William has a passion for social justice. During his time in Philadelphia, he has volunteered to help end homelessness with Pathways to Housing PA, taught English with the Latin American Legal Defense League and assisted aging jazz musicians with Jazz Bridge. William is an active musician, and enjoys trying new foods, the spicier, the better.

Jessica Accurso

Jessica Accurso, or Jessie as she is called, is the PHENND Community Partnerships Coordinator at C.W Henry Elementary School for the 2015-16 school year. She is a recent graduate of Yale University, where she played field hockey and earned her B.A. in History. Jessie is passionate about running, and reading. Jessie also loves being an advocate for social justice. This makes her long term goal of becoming a lawyer and serving those in need a most appropriate one.

Jordan Muse

Jordan will serve the Houston Elementary community as the Community Partnerships Coordinator. She is a lifelong resident of Philadelphia, more specifically of the Logan neighborhood. She is a recent graduate of the University of South Carolina where she received her Masters of Public Health. Her interests lie in decreasing sedentary behavior, increasing food access and security as well as improving communities through collaborative strategies. Jordan is a certified personal trainer, previously participated in and currently coaches track and tennis. Lastly, Jordan enjoys anything food related, a great conversation, traveling and learning.

Kat Kushin

Kat will be serving in South Philadelphia at E. M. Stanton Elementary School as the Community Partnerships Coordinator for the 2015-16 school year. She grew up in Abington, PA, a suburb just outside Philadelphia, but spent the past four years living in various parts of New Jersey while completing her undergraduate degree. She is a recent graduate of Montclair State University, where she received a degree in History with a concentration in Asian Studies and Anthropology.  Kat is passionate about education equality and literacy. At the end of her service, she hopes to continue her career within the education and nonprofit field. Some of her hobbies include singing, songwriting, drawing, reading, and walking.\

Jessica Mercado-Ortiz

Jessica will serve as the 2015-16 Community Partnerships Coordinator at Kensington Health Sciences Academy. She recently completed her post baccalaureate at Edward Via College of Osteopathic medicine after earning her B.A. in Biology from the University of Delaware. A native of Puerto Rico and an enthusiast for the great outdoors, Jessica brings to this work a passion for empowering her community through the extension of healthcare, both in knowledge and access, to the underserved. Jessica aspires to a career in medicine and attributes her commitment to serving others to her strong Christian values.

Natalie Y. Dixon

Natalie is the Community Partnerships Coordinator serving at  Lewis C. Cassidy Elementary in West Philadelphia for the 2015-16 school year. Natalie grew up in southern California and went on to attend California Baptist University to earn a B.A. in International Studies. Natalie has a passion for social justice, education equality and civic engagement. She has participated in community development projects in America and abroad.  Natalie has spent the past two years in London working with refugee populations in south London, as well as finishing up her Masters in Human Rights and Economic Development  from  Goldsmiths, University of London, in the United Kingdom. She enjoys travelling, spending time with family and making  African dishes.

Stephanie Pennypacker
Stephanie is a native of Worcester, Pennsylvania; she attended and recently graduated from Temple University with a degree in Visual Studies. During her time at Temple she was a member of the Women’s Rowing Team. This year, she will be serving at Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. Stephanie is currently a practicing visual artist with a career goal to work in the nonprofit sector. She is passionate about her art and helping the Philadelphia community.

Ciarra Martin

Ciarra is from Erial, New Jersey which is a small town in Camden County. She is currently enrolled at Rutgers New Brunswick and majors in Sociology and Africana Studies. She is serving as the Community Partnerships Coordinator at W.D. Kelley Elementary School where she served with City Year Corps last school year. Her career goal is to work in education as a teacher, but she is also interested in pursuing a position in school administration in the future. Ciarra’s other interests include healthy eating and sports.

Miriam Traore

Miriam is a native from Philadelphia. This is her third year serving with AmeriCorps; she previously served two years with Jumpstart from 2013-2015. This year Miriam is serving at the U School as the Community Partnerships Coordinator. She is currently finishing a degree in Public Health at Temple University. Miriam is passionate about nutrition, youth, and education. She plans to be a public health educator and would like to create her own healthy food brand. Her favorite food is lamb.

Gaugin Soin

Gaugin is serving as the Community Partnerships Coordinator at Powel Elementary, the same elementary school he attended while he was growing up in West Philly. Prior to his VISTA year, Gaugin served with AmeriCorps NCCC FEMA Corps in Alabama, Kansas City, and Salt Lake City. He graduated from Penn State in 2014 with a B.A. in Business Psychology and plans to attend law school to pursue his interest in Public Advocacy. Gaugin is also a personal trainer and enjoys playing sports in his free time.

Kelli Mantell

Kelli Mantell is serving in her second year as the School Based Community Partnerships Coordinator at Andrew Jackson Elementary School in South Philadelphia. Kelli grew up in rural Pennsylvania and graduated from the PA College of Art and Design in 2013. While she is passionate about the arts, she enjoys creative problem solving in the school atmosphere. Kelli loves to travel, hike and visit urban parks with her dog. To make the most of her time in Philadelphia, she enjoys learning about diverse cultural values by volunteering at refugee centers. Her goal for her second year at the Jackson school is comprehensive curricula and partnership alignment.

Cynthia Jones

Cynthia Jones is a returning PHENND VISTA at James G. Blaine Academics School. She is also a M. Ed student at Temple University studying Urban Education with a concentration in School and Community Partnerships. Cynthia’s undergraduate degree was in Political Science with a concentration in International Relations with a minor in Youth Empowerment and Urban Studies. Her multifarious and extensive experience in the field of community organizing includes interning with the Nationalities Service Center and working with Youth United for Change. Her capacity to engage enthusiastically with others is reflected in her commitment to the arts. Most recently, she has been cultivating her talent as a spoken word poet. In the future, she hopes to continue her unending pursuit of happiness by way of urban education and partnerships work in addition to poetry.

Shannon O’Brien

Shannon O’Brien hails from Cleveland, OH, but she spent the last four years focusing on American Studies and Women’s Studies at Hamilton College. After living in Upstate New York and periodically volunteering her time for service work in Appalachia, Shannon is delighted to begin her year in Philadelphia and soak in the excitement of city life. She will be working in the School District of Philadelphia’s Office of Family and Community Engagement, and is looking forward to a year of personal and professional discovery. She has an interest in working in the realm of social justice, and her year as an AmeriCorps VISTA with PHENND will provide an invaluable introduction to the professional non-profit world. She likes to show off her Irish dancing skills, and could spend hours talking about her obsession with The Shining.

Lee Begelman

Lee Begelman was born right here in Philadelphia, but he grew up in Voorhees, New Jersey, a Philly suburb. Lee attended Wake Forest University, where he majored in history and minored in philosophy and enjoyed playing on the ultimate frisbee team. Although he ventured down to North Carolina for college, Lee’s heart belongs to Philadelphia. His family emigrated from Eastern Europe to Philadelphia over 100 years ago, and Lee sees himself living in the city for the long term. In fact, he has some semi-famous Philadelphia family members, including his grandfather’s cousin, singer Eddie Fisher, who is featured on a city mural, was at one point married to Elizabeth Taylor, and is the father of Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia!). In the future, Lee would like to go to law school and possibly graduate school for public policy as well. Lee is especially drawn to social and economic justice issues and hopes to employ his strong belief in civic responsibility over the next year as a VISTA at Southwark Elementary School in South Philadelphia.

Thomas Williams

Thomas Williams is the current AmeriCorps VISTA serving Penn Treaty Middle School. A New Haven, CT native, Tom is no stranger to the classroom. Serving as a City Year Volunteer last year at Tilden Middle School, he mentored 16 Sixth Graders, focusing on Math Literacy, Attendance and Social/Emotional Learning. Thomas is a graduate of the University of Delaware. There he earned his B.A. in Political Science while also playing on the school’s Division 1 Basketball team for four years. Thomas hopes that this year of service at Penn Treaty will help to further his career goals in the education field.

Tomarra Buckner

Born and raised in Akron, Ohio, Tomarra Buckner is an AmeriCorps VISTA member who proudly serves the community in which she lives. Residing in West Philadelphia, Tomarra uses her passionate and engaging spirit to empower those around her. With an unbelievable drive and determination, Tomarra was able to graduate from Drexel University, earning a Bachelor of the Arts degree in Communications with a concentration in Public and Corporate Relations and minor in Sociology. Upon graduating Tomarra transitioned to the west coast where she pursued her dream of working in Fashion Public Relations. While working in Beverly Hills, Tomarra was able to live out her dreams, enjoying some of Hollywood’s best as her clients. Wanting to find deeper meaning in her life, Tomarra moved back to Philadelphia with the idea of “giving back” central in her mind. Tomarra currently serves with PHENND as the Attendance and Special Projects Coordinator in the Office of Student Support Services in the Philadelphia School District office. She hopes to one day provide services to youth that place emphasis on Fashion as Arts Education and expose students to viable careers within the industry.


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