Staff & Teachers

At Friends Center, our staff is diverse, dedicated and committed to working together to provide high-quality care for the children and families in our program. Our team includes our director, Allyx Schiavone, who brings years of experience and a Bank Street College education; seasoned teachers exemplifying best practices and championing each child’s development; energetic interns sharing their enthusiasm and perspectives; knowledgeable administrators adeptly maintaining our day-to-day operation; and compassionate professionals skillfully leading our emotional wellbeing program. We love our team and think you will too!

Amanda Aceto

Amanda has been working with Friend Center’s I/T teams since 2014. She came to FCfC after graduating from Hamden Transitions Academy at Southern Connecticut State University. She is an accomplished equestrian and a 22-year member of the High Hopes Training Academy in Old Lyme. The beginning of the school year is most exciting for Amanda, as she loves seeing all the new faces and getting to know the children. Art projects are a favorite activity, and she is looking forward to continuing her collaboration with teachers in planning art curriculum.

Hilary Akinbiyi

Hilary is originally from Amherst, Massachusetts, but has lived and worked in Baltimore, Chicago, and Boston, before settling in New Haven this past December. She earned a Bachelor’s at the University of Chicago and a Master’s in Early Childhood Education at Boston University. Hilary is currently finishing a Certificate of Advanced Educational Specialization program in Curriculum and Instruction at Boston College. She has 9 years of teaching experience, including several years full-time with infants and toddlers. She absolutely loves working with the youngest learners and participating in their discoveries. In her free time, Hilary likes to play with her dog and cat, do yoga, try new coffee shops, read, and do riddles and puzzles.

Kristen Allen

Kristen has been in Early Childhood Education for over 30 years.  She has an Associates Degree in Early Childhood Education from Norwalk Community College, and her teaching career has mostly been focused on infants and toddlers. She has also worked in the public school system as a paraprofessional for children with special needs. Kristen started out as a theater major at The University of Bridgeport, and worked for ten years as an actress and director in NYC. Her background in the arts has played an integral part in her interactions with the children in the classroom.

In her spare time she likes to read, watch movies, and spend time on the beach.  She also loves to cook dinner for her three adult children, Alex, Nicolle and Jarett.

Rondraya Barron

Rondraya Barron had the pleasure of being raised in both Jamaica and America. The passing of a young sibling in Jamaica has inspired and motivated Rondraya to pursue a career involving working with children. Currently residing in Bridgeport CT, Rondraya attended Bullard Havens Technical High-school taking up the Early Childcare Education trade. There Rondraya had her first interaction working with children in a classroom, gaining experience and developing a passion to help and put a smile on children’s and their families faces. Rondraya previously worked at Bright Horizons of Orange starting as a center support then becoming a toddler teacher. Wanting to reinforce her commitment to early childcare education she took a course earning her CDA(the Child Development Associate) credentials while working at BH. Recently Rondraya has worked as a paraprofessional with special needs children in public schools in the Bridgeport, Ansonia area. Building positive relationships with children, families and staff along with being open to new opportunities has resulted in Rondraya a part of the FCfC family.

Vanessa Bastian

Vanessa Bastian began volunteering at her aunt’s daycare in Branford, CT by the age of 15. It was then that she realized how much she enjoyed working with children. After this joyful experience, she attended Gateway and obtained her Associates Degree in Early Childhood Education. She then went on to attend Southern Connecticut State University to complete her Bachelors in Liberal Arts and Sciences. Vanessa then decided to continue her education journey at Ashford University where she graduated with her Master’s Degree in Education with a specialization in Early Childhood Education. She believes that she is truly meant to work with kids. Vanessa is a mom of two boys and loves to watch how all children grow and develop. She believes that the children we have in our classrooms are the leaders of tomorrow, and we are lucky to have the opportunity to be a part of their journey.

Kam Bellamy

After graduating from Georgetown with a degree in Race and Gender Studies, Kam moved to an intentional community in Northern England where she studied Biodynamic horticulture while living and working with people with developmental disabilities. Appreciating the holistic lifestyle, Kam spent 15 years in agrarian based, self-governing communities, enjoying living largely off the land, the camaraderie of her neighbors, and proximity to nature. In 2011, Kam moved to Hudson, NY and helped to found an urban community with people with developmental disabilities based on valuing the wholeness and dignity of each human spirit. Kam’s experience as a single parent to a remarkable now-grown daughter fostered her deep appreciation for community and interest in two-generation models to supporting families and breaking the cycle of poverty. Kam moved to New Haven to pursue an MBA at Yale and is thrilled to bring her background in community-building and organizational development to the Friends Center. Kam is mostly a locavore, and on weekends can be found perusing the farmers’ market and enjoying the bounty of the season. She also loves hiking, biking, learning anything new, having her perspective changed, and long walks in unspoiled nature.

La’Shelle Bryan

La’Shelle is currently attending the University of New Haven for her master’s degree in Forensic Technology. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of New Haven in Criminal Justice with a minor in Psychology and hopes to one day have a rehabilitation facility for children. She is originally from Maplewood, New Jersey where she began working with school age children at the South Mountain YMCA beginning at age 15. Through her experiences and growth at the YMCA with summer camps, she has developed an excitement to venture into early childhood care. She loves music, singing and going to the beach. She is ecstatic to be a part of the FCfC community and hopes to gain further experience with children!

Kristen Calderon

Kristen Calderon lives in New Haven and has a certificate from Gateway Community College in Community Health Work. She has several years of experience in a daycare setting, as well as working as a caseworker at a local non-profit. Kristen’s job as a caseworker inspired her to obtain  her associate’s degree in Early Childhood Education which she is still working towards. She strongly believes that strengthening our community and assisting vulnerable populations must start with children in these first few crucial years of their lives. She first discovered Friends Center as a parent 4 years ago, and was impressed with the focus on the whole child and emergent curriculum. Kristen has been working as a substitute and classroom support in all the classrooms since March 2018. During her free time, Kristen enjoys being in nature, spending time with her son, and playing with their pets.  She feels very honored to be able to continue to get to know the friends at FCFC.

Jan Childs

Jan Childs is an assistant teacher at Friends Center with more than 30 years of experience with infants and toddlers. Jan cared for children in her own home daycare for 27 years before she joined the Friends Center team in 2015. She is married and has two adult children, a son Cory and a daughter Abby. In her free time, she enjoys losing herself in a great book!

Jakim Dease

Jakim Dease is a University of Connecticut Student who lives in Hamden, CT. He is pursuing a degree in Communication and a minor in Africana Studies. Jakim has several years of experience as an administrative assistant working at the University of Connecticut. He was inspired by his mother who is an elementary school teacher to pursue a career in the education field. He has babysitting and volunteer experience from being a Sunday school teacher at his church and volunteered time as an assistant teacher in the “children’s church” program. Friend’s Center was introduced to Jakim through a news broadcast where he heard that there was a worker’s shortage and he believed he could be of assistance to the program in order to make Friends Center run more smoothly and efficiently. During Jakim’s free time he enjoys listening to music, playing basketball and writing poems.

Marilyn DeJesus

Marilyn DeJesus joins us as a graduate from Gateway Community College with an associates degree in Early Childhood Education and five years at a NAEYC Accredited center. Her passion of caring for children started in her high school years as a volunteer in a home daycare and then becoming a nanny for children with whom she still has a loving relationship with. Marilyn attained experience and knowledge through internships at Gateway Community College and Yale New Haven Hospital and volunteering as the Female leader at YoungLife New Haven. Marilyn spent a year in La Romana, Dominican Republic teaching English to various age groups all the while extending help through a local organization that provides food and medical services to impoverishment communities. She recently became married and has a son. During her free time she enjoys Zumba, water sports, and traveling back to the Dominican Republic as often as possible.

Valerie Denny

Val Denny is the head teacher in Pod 5, she has been a part of the Friends Center community since 2013. Val has attended Charter Oak college for early childhood education, and has been working in the early childhood education field for over 20 years. She was inspired to open and operate her own home daycare for 15 years. Her passion in teaching young children is evident, in her calm and nurturing interactions with children. Through research, Val discovered the benefits of incorporating American Sign Language in the classroom environment. She is certified in ASL and her goal is to become a certified interpreter in ASL.

Val is delighted to be in Pod 5, where she continues to help our youngest friends at Friends Center flourish!

Antonia Dondero

Antonia has been teaching and caring for young children for over 15 years.  She has her Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and Early Childhood Education from Baypath College in Longmeadow Ma. She has taught infants, toddlers and preschool.  She lives on the shoreline with her son and bulldog.
In her spare time she enjoys being a soccer mom!  Going for walks, hikes and just being a mom to a great young man!

Katherine Flores

Katherine Flores received her bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education from Charter Oak State College in 2016 and has since accumulated six years of experience. During her childhood, Katherine lived with her mother and father in Honduras, and at 11 years old, moved to Connecticut. Coming from a foreign country, she developed a sense of community appreciation for education. Her experience began as a volunteer at her younger brother’s preschool, St. Francis and St. Rose of Lima. Her bilingual skills and her natural gifts for teaching earned her a promotion as an assistant teacher. In 2015, Katherine began her work at Friends Center for Children as a headteacher. Throughout her time at FCfC, Katherine has proven to be an efficient worker and determined to do her part in serving her community, all while developing a more deep-rooted passion for teaching. In 2020, Katherine is eager to expand her role in supporting her community further as site director for FCfC’s Blake St. location. Throughout her time at FCfC, Katherine shares with us her love of books, her love for her family, and her uplifting, humorous personality.

Marianne Godfrey

Marianne came to Friends Center through her co-op role for her oldest granddaughter in 2009. She continued doing co-op for the next four years and then became a full-time employee when the program expanded in 2013. During the past seven years of working at Friends Center, Marianne has been involved with administrative support, admissions, office management and many financial responsibilities of the center. With a background in real estate and administrative service, Marianne brings a wide variety of skills to the administrative team. She is best known for her knitting projects and her love of her grandchildren. Marianne is excited to watch Friends Center continue to grow and see many more families experience the exceptional program where both her grandchildren thrived.

Patrice Harrison

Patrice Lanae Harrison was born and raised in Hamden, Connecticut and is owner and operator of Ivy League Healthcare Consultants (“Ivy League”).  Ivy League is a healthcare consulting company which specializes in supporting childcare facilities throughout the state of Connecticut and has been in operation since 2010.  Ms. Harrison is a 2005 graduate of Boston College where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing.  In 2007, she obtained a Master of Science in Nursing from Yale University School of Nursing and is currently both a licensed Registered Nurse and Advanced Practiced Registered Nurse with a specialty in Family.  She is also an active American Heart Association CPR instructor.

Ms. Harrison has served as the presiding nurse and/or nurse practitioner in many health care settings, including a school-based health clinic, residential behavioral center for children and long-term care facility.  She also served as a nursing instructor at Lincoln Technical Institute in Connecticut for many years.
Ms. Harrison is an active member of the Church of God & Saints of Christ and currently a member of the Church’s National Medical Team.  She has traveled extensively both domestically and internationally, most notably a missionary trip to South Africa. Traveling is one of her many passions as well as spending time and creating memories with her children aged seven and nine as well as her foster child aged one.

Nathaniel Harvey

Nathaniel is currently a student at Charter Oak State College finishing his Bachelor’s in Early Childhood Education. Nathaniel has gained his knowledge and experiences from his time at Gateway Community College’s Early Learning Center through his courses and tutelage from wonderful classroom teachers and professors. Nathaniel enjoys talking to children while encouraging their current interests through a variety of media. He likes to  encourage children to write or draw important moments they experience at Friend’s Center to share home. Nathaniel likes to spend free time playing various games, drawing, cooking food from various cultures, and reading. Fun Fact: He really loves historical clothing and patterns.

Cynthia Howard

Cynthia Howard has been caring for young children in her community since the age of thirteen. When it came time to enter college, early childhood education was a clear path. Her classes at Gateway Community College have deepened her commitment to the field. She feels passionate about the many ways children learn and can be supported in their development. She wanted to find a program that valued learning through play, as well as one that emphasized the importance of respect and inclusion, and found that at Friends Center. She is excited to be part of this community and looks forward to opportunities to expand her knowledge and grow as an educator.

Nadia Iqbal

Nadia is from Bangladesh.  She is currently a student at Gateway Community College and expects to complete her Associate Degree in Early Childhood in the fall of 2021.  Nadia began her work in the early childhood field as a student teacher at the ABS Alphabet Center and Gateway Early Learning Center in New Haven.  Nadia enjoys interacting with children, talking with them and helping them learn.  She likes to engage in group activities while supporting children in feeling happy, safe and comfortable.  During her free time, Nadia enjoys spending time with family, gardening and cooking.  Her favorite thing is to try new recipes

Miriam Johnson

Miriam has a wealth of experience in the fields of education, mental health, and human services. She holds an Associate Degree in Early Childhood Education from Gateway Community College, as well as a Bachelor and Master Degree in Human Services from Albertus Magnus College. During her time at Clifford Beers Clinic, she gained critical knowledge of infant mental health and the understanding of how effective early intervention can be. This inspired her to seek an opportunity to serve the social/emotional needs of young children.

Miriam has 20 plus years of experience serving children and families throughout New Haven in various capacities. She is committed to providing high-quality services to children and families. As a former FCfC preschool parent, she is intimately familiar with our program. She loves  contributing her professional and personal experiences to the position of Emotional Wellbeing Coordinator.

Valerie Laplume

Valerie Laplume was born in Westerly, Rhode Island but later moved to Groton, Connecticut, where she grew up. Five years ago, she moved to New Haven, CT. She’s grown to love the culture of the city and everything it has to offer. While in high school, Valerie played basketball and was the captain of her school’s field hockey team. She graduated from Gateway Community College with her associates in early childhood education, having taken courses such as “Health and Safety,” “Child, Family, School, and Community,” “Math and Science for Children,” and “Children’s Growth and Development.” These courses have helped to shape and show the love and appreciation she has for early education. While at Gateway, Valerie also took classes for exceptional learners. From these classes, she has learned how to interpret children’s feelings and how to create the positive school environment that children need. She is currently in the process of getting her Bachelors degree at Charter Oak Early Education Center. She loves teaching because she wants to make a difference by giving children a place to feel safe and loved, watch them grow and experience new things. She also can’t wait to share new information that she had learned. In addition, Valerie is also always looking for ways to improve her teaching. Outside of teaching, Valerie enjoys Arts and Crafts, Cooking, and Shopping. When she can, she also loves to spend time with her family, with whom she is very close.

Jessica Legere

In 2004, Jessica “Jessie” Legere graduated from the University of Connecticut with her Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education, and again in 2005 with her Master’s degree in Education. From there, she worked as a Kindergarten substitute before becoming a first-grade teacher! However, Jessie soon found out that teaching at the elementary level, while incredibly rewarding, wasn’t her true passion. Teaching preschool, however, was, and it was at that moment in 2006 that she began her journey in the field of early childhood education. Jessie has been both a preschool teacher and program Director, sharing her love for this field with countless fellow educators and families. During these years, she came to realize that what she valued most are programs that celebrate human connection, that support learning through play, creativity, and kindness, and that commit to on-going growth and professional development! Jessie believes in starting each day with positivity and mindfulness, in treating each interaction she has with others with respect and the intention to understand, and in learning something new each day. In her spare time, she enjoys hopping on her bike for a spin class, hiking and being around lots of trees, shopping for anything vintage, listening to music and attending concerts, reading- especially poetry, and spending time with her nephew, Bruin, eating peanut butter and having dance parties.

Therese Luetzgendorf

Therese Luetzgendorf began working for Friends Center in 2013 as an assistant teacher with infants and toddlers. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in Social Work from Southern Connecticut State University and completed her master’s degree in Human Services from Albertus Magnus College in 2016. She then joined the Early Childhood RULER team as a research assistant at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. In 2018 she re-joined Friends Center as one of the Emotional Wellbeing Coordinators. Therese’s passion is to apply innovative and creative ways to support children and connect and build an empathetic community. In her free time, Therese enjoys hiking and traveling.

Puja Mansaram

Puja graduated with an Associate Degree in Early Childhood Education from Naugatuck Valley Community College, and is continuing her early childhood education at Southern Connecticut State University. Puja has a passion and love for working and teaching young children. She has 3 years of experience working with toddlers and preschoolers. In her spare time Puja enjoys yoga, hiking and spending time with her family and friends.

Puja believes, “Teaching kids to count is fine, but to teach kids what counts is best” – bob talbert

Lisa Manzi

Lisa has been in  Early Childhood Education for over 12 years.  She has her Masters in Education Curriculum and Instruction and was a Head Preschool Teacher for 8 years, working with NAEYC and CT Standards.  Lisa also has been a paraprofessional in the public school systems assisting with special needs students, which peaked her interest in working with a school based population.  For the last 3 years she worked in the North Branford Public Schools Family Resource Center serving  pre-k through grade 6 as a Site Coordinator of the two elementary schools before and after care programs.  In these roles her passion is fueled by the students and the unique and innocent way they see the world.   As an avid reader she also enjoys spreading that joy with the students by tuning into their interests and providing mindful books and experiences that coincide with their reflections.   In her spare time she enjoys quiet early mornings at the beach, mediations, reading,  nature based activities, and a devotion to animals especially her Pembroke Welsh Corgi Roody 🙂

Alexandra Nofi

Alexandra Nofi was born in 1986 to an Italian/Igbo father, and Italian/French Canadian mother. She lived the first ten years of her life in Middletown, CT. Alexandra’s childhood was not always easy, especially due to being on the autism spectrum and going undiagnosed until adulthood. During her time in Middletown, Alexandra developed a strong love for visual art.

Alexandra’s teaching career began in 2006, during her second semester of college. At the time, she was studying for her two year degree in Fine Art. Alexandra continued pursuing this degree, while also teaching at Gateway Community College’s on-site preschool. She has taught a variety of students over the course of 14 years since then, including children who were refugees, children with special needs, and children who were victims of abuse/neglect. Visual art regularly makes its way into her teaching, because Alexandra believes that it gives children confidence, and the knowledge that their humanity and intelligence are not to be underestimated.

In her spare time, Alexandra enjoys continuing her practice of the Martial Arts. For three years, Alexandra took classes at Middletown Kenpo Karate, led at the time by Lee Lowery. Lee’s mission to provide a safe haven for young children who need to feel confident in themselves, is what Alexandra draws inspiration from when she teaches.

Natasha Nunez

 Natasha has been working for 2 years in a support role in an infant/toddler classroom setting.  She has been passionate about working with young children since she completed a competitive internship at Yale New Haven Hospital Daycare during her junior and senior years in high school.  Natasha is currently in her second year at Gateway Community College, working to obtain her Associate’s Degree in Early Childhood Education.  She intends to continue her studies to complete her bachelor’s degree in teaching.  Natasha has been working with both I/T classrooms at Friends Center and has formed loving relationships with children and staff.  Natasha has demonstrated strong knowledge of child development and has been able to apply it within the Friends Center culture.  We look forward to Natasha’s continued growth in our program.

Jenny Perez

Jenny Perez recently graduated from Albertus Magnus College with a BA in Sociology of Social Work & Social Welfare. Through her internship, Jenny gained experience working with children and helping her students build confidence. Jenny found that she really enjoyed working with children, and taking on the role as a mentor. Jenny is committed to her academic work, and plans to return to school in the future to obtain a Master’s degree, but for now, she plans on gaining more experience and learning more about child development through her work in the classroom. In her free time, Jenny enjoys painting and further developing her creativity through photography. Jenny is excited to join the Friends Center for Children team, and hopes to meet and build a relationship with every single member of the FCfC community!

Keila Perez

Keila Perez brings over 10 years of experience in early childhood education to her role as assistant teacher at Friends Center.  Her daughter Alexa attended Friends Center for preschool and has moved on to Kindergarten.  She was born and raised in New York and attended Borough Manhattan Community College where she graduated with an Associate Degree in Early Childhood Education. During her time in college, she worked for organizations, such as Boys Scouts of America and Children’s Aid, where she developed leadership skills as she helped young adults and young children build character.  She is currently pursuing a Bachelor Degree in Early Childhood Education.  Keila has a passion for children and education, especially the individual learning process of each child.

Paris Pierce

Paris joined Friends Center’s preschool program as a support teacher in January of 2019.  Previously, she worked in early childhood for two years and developed a deep passion for it. Paris enjoys helping children learn in new ways and being a part of breakthroughs in their development. She recently moved back to Connecticut from Ohio, where she started her childcare journey. She has two beautiful children, Londyn and Ryan who keep her on her toes at all times.  Ryan attends Friends Center and will be entering our preschool classroom this year.

Lessly Portillo

Lessly is pursuing her master’s in social work at Southern Connecticut State University, focusing in a school setting. Lessly got her bachelor’s degree at Mount Holyoke College and majored in psychology. She began to work with children during undergrad, while she took on an education psychology class and volunteered at a children’s center to observe the interactions between the children. Lessly has tutored children in reading and has also worked at summer camps where she led fun activities such as arts and crafts, creative writing, and science. During her free time she enjoys spending time with her family and dog. Lessly enjoys going for a nice walk around the beach and trying new places to eat.

Maggie Prendergast

As the new Development Associate for Friends Center for Children, Maggie Prendergast will be working closely with the Friends Center Development  Committee and will support Allyx on all aspects of our development program including: annual fund solicitation, corporate and foundation proposals, major capital gifts planning, planned giving programs and alumni/families relations development. 

Prior to joining Friends Center, Maggie worked as the Fundraising Consultant to Ashoka Austria’s Visionary Program and Impact Transfer team and as the International Fundraising Consultant at the Museum of Applied Art & Design in Vienna. She previously served as the Director of Stewardship and Donor Relations at the Hotchkiss School, as the Director of Development and Special Events at the Design Museum in London, and is also a former preschool teacher.

Maggie graduated from Smith College with BA in Philosophy and Dance and has MA degrees in Philosophy from New York University and in Nonprofit Management from City University, London. She has family roots in both the Salisbury and West Hartford areas of Connecticut and is excited to learn more about our communities in New Haven as well.

 

Lauren Repetsky

Lauren Repetsky grew up in a home daycare, and from a young age,  knew that she wanted to work with children. Lauren has worked in the child care field for over 7 years, spending the first 5 years in a Montessori school. The day that Lauren started at Montessori is the day that she knew being a teacher was her calling. Lauren graduated with a Bachelor Degree in Early Childhood from Southern Connecticut State University in December of 2019 and couldn’t be more excited to begin her new journey in the education field. In her free time, Lauren enjoys hiking, yoga, going to the beach, spending time with family and her pets.

Karina Rojas

Karina came to our beautiful country in 2015 with her husband and son. Karina was born in Maracay-Venezuela and obtained a degree in Administration and Accounting in her country. Karina left the numbers and calculators to dedicate herself to doing what she likes to do with her vocation, and that is working with children. Five years ago Karina began this adventure of preparing herself at a professional level to give the best of  herself  to children, at the same time she started as a volunteer and quickly became employed in centers accredited by NAEYC. Karina obtained her CDA in 2016 and is currently studying for her Bachelor of Early Childhood Education. Proudly Hispanic, Karina enjoys offering children an additional foundation in a second language. In Karinas free time photography is her passion, she likes to capture the best angle of the places she visits.

Allyx Schiavone

Allyx has 29 years of experience in early childhood development and elementary education – as a teacher and administrator in CT and NY. She holds dual Masters’ degrees from Bank Street College of Education in Early Child Development and Elementary Education and a Bachelor’s degree from Union College. A third-generation New Haven native and long-time resident of Fair Haven, Allyx maintains ownership in a New Haven real estate development corporation which she managed from 1998-2009.

Allyx has served as Program Coordinator for New Haven-based Area Cooperative Educational Services (ACES); Early Childhood Classroom Observer for Southern Connecticut State University; and Budget Coordinator for the New Haven Board of Education facilitating a $2 million grant. Allyx has taught in NYC, New Haven and Greenwich in several elementary schools and pre-school settings, directed summer camps and written and supervised curriculums at elementary, middle and high school levels with an emphasis on literacy, math, science, and multidisciplinary studies.

Allyx is a founder of the New Haven Children’s Ideal Learning District (NH ChILD). NH ChILD is a coalition of local and national early childhood proponents that have come together to create a place-based pilot program in New Haven. NH ChILD proposes to revolutionize the early care and education landscape by bringing the community together around a common vision of Ideal Learning with a focus on equity. The goal of NH ChILD is to provide high-quality early care and education experiences for all 15,000 New Haven children ages zero to eight.

She currently serves as an advisory member of the University of New Haven’s Nonprofit Certificate in Leadership, Innovation and Organizational Sustainability and on the Mayoral Appointed New Haven Early Childhood Council. She is a 2019 recipient of the Southern Black Nurses Association Community Service Award and the 2019 Amity Club Distinguished Italian-American Lifetime Achievement Award. She is also Exchange Magazine’s Master Leader award and the recipient of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence Marvin Maurer Spotlight Award. She is a member of the National Association for the Education of Young Children and is a former; board member for Connecticut Voices for Children; appointee to the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Reading; and leader of the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund Community Leadership Program. She is the mother of two fantastic teenaged children and has a lovely black dog named Blue.

Virginia Sharene

Virginia Sharene has been an assistant teacher at Friends Center since 2015.  In August of 2020, Virginia moved into the role of Infant/Toddler Co-Head Teacher.  She is a graduate of Gateway Community College, where she earned her associate’s degree in Early Childhood Education, earning High Honors in Academic Achievement and induction into Phi Theta Kappa. While attending school, Virginia worked at the Early Learning Center at Gateway as a classroom assistant. Virginia’s love of teaching stems from encouraging her own three children to explore, create and have fun in learning. Virginia enjoys spending time with her husband and children, especially in performing music, culinary arts, games, nature and photography. Virginia is very humbled and proud to be a member of the Friends Center family.

Tanya Shively

Tanya Shively comes to Friends Center from a diverse international background. Born in Hong Kong, where she received her primary school education, Tanya attended secondary school in England, before settling in the United States as a young adult. She has also lived in Australia and Canada, and feels most at home among an international group. Partially for that reason, she manages a group of au pairs and families in Trumbull, Connecticut, where she resides with her husband and two children. Tanya holds a Bachelor of Music in Composition from the University of the Pacific and a Master of Music from the Hartt School, University of Hartford. Although not actively performing, she stays involved with musical organizations in the area through administration and arranges musical scores on a regular basis. Classical music continues to be her deepest passion. Tanya owned and operated a gourmet sandwich shop and caterer called The Sandwich Maestro that has a classical musical theme located in Stamford for 20 years which she sold in December 2017. She considers herself a foodie. Cooking, entertaining and going to different restaurants are some of her favorite pastimes.

Praise Strothers

Praise is currently a student at University of Connecticut, (UConn) and will be aiming towards an Associate Degree in Social Work. Praise has gained knowledge and experience with children through her high school early childhood educational courses, and has been guided through her mom, our Infant/Toddler Head Teacher, Valerie Denny. Praise enjoys engaging in conversations with children, showing them how to problem- solve and getting creative with them. She likes to spread love amongst
all her Friends Center friends and assuring them of their safety. During her free time, Praise likes to spend time with friends, try new food places or watch sunsets at the beach! Fun Fact: Praise loves sunsets & moons!

Aundrea Tabbs-Smith

Aundrea attended Temple University where she obtained a bachelor’s in Early and Elementary Education and later earned her master’s in Special Education from Bank Street College of Education in Manhattan. Reflecting on her experiences in middle and high school, as the only or one of a handful of students of color, she published her first book in 2018, learning that even though others may not see our value we have a purpose. Aundrea wrote “For the Quiet Black Girl Trying to Find Her Voice in a Predominately White Space” for little girls like her who needed the reminder that they matter.
Aundrea was a classroom teacher at Rye Country Day School for 12 years — teaching 1st, 3rd, and 4th grade and was the Lower School Diversity Coordinator and a member of the Social Justice Committee. Throughout her teaching career, it has been her mission to not only educate the minds of her students but also enrich their souls. After leaving the classroom she was Director of Admissions for an independent school in Stamford, CT for two years. Aundrea is excited to join the Friends community and work together to liberate and empower families.

Kristina Valente

Kristina joined the Friends Center community in August of 2018 and brought with her 10 years of experience working with children ages preschool through 5th grade. Preschool has become her favorite age group to work with because of the ages’ significant potential for growth and development. Kristina holds a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in Education from Southern Connecticut State University.

Kristina loves gardening, cooking with her husband, Michael, and playing with their dogs Poppy, Tasha, Pippa, Rosie, Marley and Taco.

Angela Valentin-Ares

Angela is from New Haven, CT. She recently graduated from the University of Connecticut with a Bachelor’s degree in psychology. Angela has worked at multiple facilities and expects to receive her CDA sometime in the Fall of 2021. Angela would like to own her own daycare in the near future and continues to work towards that goal. She enjoys trying new things and outdoor activities. Working with kids has always been a passion for her, having two younger brothers that she helped care for. She likes helping children learn through play.

Sarah Wheaton

Sarah Wheaton is from Milford, CT and grew up in a home daycare, which was run by her mother. She spent 7 years as a co-owner of the same daycare before moving out of state and taking a job in the security industry. She is so excited to return to childcare, which is her passion. In her free time she enjoys reading, hiking and spending time with family and friends.