The YESS Team

We are a Family of Care, Communication, Connection, Empowerment, and Transparency

Carlo Kriekels, Co-founder and Executive Director

“The YESS Institute is a community of staff, volunteers and board members who seek to embody the YESS equity guidelines of Care, Communication, Connection, Empowerment, and Transparency.” 

Carlo Kriekels, co-founder

Meet the YESS Staff

Carlo Kriekels, Co-Founder & CEO

Carlo was born in Belgium and is a first-generation American Citizen. He holds two law degrees (a J.D. from Belgium and a LL.M from Germany) and is proficient in six languages. After completing an intensive four-year training program in emotional intelligence coaching, Carlo taught leadership and emotional intelligence skills to business leaders in Europe and the United States.  In 2001 he co-founded the Denver based educational nonprofit YESS Institute in order to bring the benefits of emotional intelligence skills to at-risk youth, role models and the agencies that serve youth. He is one of the key leaders in the creation of the Mentor Colorado and serves on their Advisory Board.  Carlo served on both The Denver Foundation’s Inclusiveness Committee (2009-2015) and The Denver Foundation’s Education Committee (2012-2014). In partnership with the Denver Office of the Independent Monitor, Carlo is one of lead curriculum developers of the Forums: “Youth Outreach Project – Bridging the Gap: Cops and Kids”. He received the 2011 “Heavy Lifting Award” from the Denver Mayor’s Office for Education and Children for his efforts to improve the lives of youth in Denver. In addition, Carlo accepted the 2016 My Brother’s Keeper Award – MBK25 – from Mayor Michael Hancock and the City and County of Denver for work with young men of color on behalf of the YESS Institute. Carlo lives in Denver with his wife, two sons and their Wheaten Terrier. In his free time he enjoys cycling over and across the Colorado Rockies.

Contact: carlo@yessinstitute.org

John Withaar, Chief Operating Officer / Chief Financial Officer

Contact: john@yessinstitute.org

Vince Trujillo, Director of Programs

Vince is a Colorado native and grew up in North Denver. Before joining YESS in 2017, Vince spent over nine years teaching and mentoring youth in DPS in character, life skills, and leadership at Colorado UpLift, and four years working as a special education paraprofessional in DPS before that. He also has a background in helping people find jobs, food service, summer camps, and case managing. Vince has been married to his wife Veronica for almost 18 years now. They have two kids, Aviana who is 8 and Deigo less than a year old.

Contact: vince@yessinstitute.org

Alex Rodriguez, Director of Training and Curriculum Development

Alexandra Rodriguez brings a rich tapestry of experience and knowledge to her role in education, seamlessly weaving her dedication to social-emotional learning, community engagement, and cultural awareness. As a proud first-generation college student of Puerto Rican-Italian descent, her path has been paved with both challenges and milestones. Armed with a Master of Arts in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Denver, Alexandra champions the power of education to catalyze transformative change. Her tenure as a Training Director and Curriculum Writer at The YESS Institute since 2018 has seen her spearhead initiatives like an opioid prevention program for teens in partnership with the City of Denver. Earlier roles, such as a Cultural Arts Specialist at Boys and Girls Club and a YMCA Site Supervisor, have further solidified her dedication to the holistic development of young individuals, especially those who have been intentionally underserved. 

Her commitment to decolonizing education is not just professional but deeply personal. Alexandra seeks to merge her past achievements with future aspirations, currently working on a Ph.D. in Education and Human Development, Critical Studies in Education. At the heart of Lex’s work is a desire to foster unity, empathy, and a recognition of the beautiful tapestry of cultures that make up our world.  Her ambitious vision encompasses a holistic approach to education, integrating the principles of decolonization, critical hope, and social-emotional learning. Her mission is clear: to forge an educational landscape where marginalized communities reclaim their histories, identities, and futures and work toward collective healing. 

Contact: lex@yessinstitute.org

Dino Abeyta, Family Advocate

As the YESS Family Advocate, Dino serves the communities of West Leadership Academy and North High School. Dino Abeyta is a Colorado native, born and raised in Denver. He has over 20 years of counseling  experience.  He has worked with at risk youth in a psychiatric  In-Patient setting, Department of Youth Corrections and Denver Parks & Recreation. Dino has been married to his wife Sonya for 28 years. They have 3 daughters Vanessa, Ashleigh and Cassidy and 6 grandchildren.

Contact: dino@yessinstitute.org

Seantay D. Patterson, Program Manager

She/Her/Hers

Seantay Patterson graduated from Adams State University with a Bachelors degree in Cellular and Molecular Biology. Seantay also earned an Associates Degree in Applied Science from Aurora Community College. After graduating from Adams State University, Seantay started off her professional career at the University of Colorado (Anschutz Medical Campus). At the University of Colorado (CU), Seantay conducted human clinical research with the IMAGE research group. Seantay also reviewed recombinant DNA and select toxin protocols for CU’s Institutional Biosafety Committee. Due to her strong science background, Seantay has worked in the educational field. Seantay has done tutoring work with Club-Z Tutoring and taught the sixth grade as a mentor and instructor at Roca Fuerte Academy. In addition, Seantay has taught science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) at the Boy Scouts of America. Seantay has also worked for Believe to Achieve as a program supervisor and program specialist. The students that Seantay worked with through Believe to Achieve were from the Adams 14 school district in Commerce City, CO.

She works for YESS because the curriculum is great, and the students relate to it. She passionate about YESS because it allows students to reflect and learn more about their community and themselves. 

Seantay understands what it is like to struggle in school and comes from a single parent home.  

Seantay describes herself as a big kid. She loves spending time with her dad, going hiking, and taking afternoon naps on the weekend.

Contact: seantay@yessinstitute.org

James Victor Silva, Program Manager

James Victor Silva was born and raised in Denver, Colorado with deep cultural and historical roots within the mestizo Hispano people of Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico. He is a graduate of Adams City High School and the University of Colorado Boulder. He holds undergraduate degrees in Political Science and English Literature-Creative Writing, as well as a Minor in the Study and Practice of Leadership as a scholar of the President’s Leadership Class of CU Boulder.

He has worked in politics, publishing, and education through roles within the 2008 Obama for America presidential campaign, the HealthCare Chaplaincy Network of New York City, the Ricardo Flores Magón Academy and the Pre-Collegiate Development Program at CU Boulder.

Through his professional experience he has served in various leadership roles in schools, on scholarship boards, and social justice organizations; all with a primary focus on advocating for underrepresented communities and our diverse Latinx cultures . He views himself as a lifelong educator, advocate for underrepresented students and their families. He enjoys gardening, creative writing, reading, and traveling for the enjoyment of better understanding human history and what it may mean to be a part of the human story.

Contact: james@yessinstitute.org

Dartagnan Davon, Post-Secondary Success Navigator

Dartagnan Davon is a Two-time Paralympic Bronze Medalist and World Champion in the sport of judo. He is also a judo coach, educator and Post-secondary Success Navigator for the YESS Institute. Originally from the inner city of Cleveland OH, Dartagnan is no stranger to the hardships of poverty, discrimination and abject mental health. With all of these challenges in tow, Dartagnan discovered his own power through sport. His decision to pursue athletics sparked a remarkable chain of events which led him to an illustrious career as a United States Paralympian. After retiring from elite level competition, Dartagnan quickly learned that the trauma of his childhood was causing him to devolve from the man who he desired to be. At this point, Dartagnan made use of his college resources, sphere of influence, and therapeutic healing modalities to remedy his trauma. As a result, Dartagnan has completed a BA in Community Enrichment through Restorative Practice with a minor in Social Work at MSU Denver. Now employed with YESS, Dartagnan strives to guide, mentor and empower youth of all ages. 

Contact: dartagnan@yessinstitute.org

Cheyenne Bueno, Program Manager

She/Her/Hers

As a Graduate of Denver North High School, Cheyenne has found her home with YESS Institute; It has given her the opportunity to support the youth in North Denver and make a difference to students who truly need someone to support them far beyond their academics. Growing up, Cheyenne faced poverty, mental health struggles, lack of family support, and uncontrollable obstacles that come with living as an at-risk youth. Thinking back, she can identify one adult who truly helped her get through some of my hardest days as a youth, Vince Trujillo, her former YESS Classroom Program Manager when she was a student at North High School. Her hope is to truly impact the youth in my classroom the same way he impacted her. Some people strive for fame, but her goal is to walk beside her students on their best days and their worst days. In her classroom, students have the opportunity to feel safe, loved, and seen; while also learning and implementing Healthy Relationships, Responsible Decision Making, Social Awareness, Self Awareness, and Self-Management. 

Contact: cheyenne@yessinstitute.org

Esmeralda Castillo Cobian, Program Manager

She/Her/Ella

Esmeralda brings three years of teaching experience as a Language Arts educator prior to joining the YESS team as a Program Manager. Her roots trace back to Mexico, but she was raised in the Aurora community. Esmeralda holds degrees in Ethnic Studies and Education, earned from the prestigious CU Boulder.

Growing up as a student, Esmeralda always felt like she was missing a teacher who was willing to give her the space to talk about the personal and harsh parts of her life. It is important to her that she is able to help her students be able to make these connections and have that space which is so important.

Esmeralda understands the importance of SEL in the classroom so she is very passionate about helping students learn about SEL competencies.

One of Esmeralda’s passions lies in the world of coffee. She loves to make and drink coffee and wants to one day own a coffee shop.

Esmeralda enjoys spending time with her two cats, reading, and being with family.

Contact: esmeralda@yessinstitute.org

Jocelyne Raygoza, Program Manager

In December of 2021, Jocelyne graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in Human Performance and Sport. Jocelyne grew up in the Southwest Denver area and is an alumnus of John F. Kennedy High School where she was a YESS mentee. In 2020, Jocelyne returned to worked at John F. Kennedy High School as an ELA-S Paraprofessional. During her day, she supports students who are emerging English Language Learners throughout their core classes. During her time at JFK, she has also managed to build a brand-new Boys Volleyball program from the ground up. Jocelyne noticed that there was a demand for a team and with the help of the students, she was able to create a successful and competitive program with two levels of teams in its first year. Much of her vast experience with students also comes from the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Denver (BGCMD). From 2010-2013 Jocelyne was a Peer Leader. As a Peer leader she designed and facilitated SEL based programs such as Words Can Heal and GO For It. During her time at the BGCMD, she also volunteered her time as a coach for both the Boys’ and Girls’ Basketball teams, as well as the Girls’ Volleyball team. She had the privilege to work with these teens for 4 years as their coach. She believes that programs like the BGCMD and YESS both have similar goals and want the youth they work with to not only have a safe space to flourish and grow, but to feel confident with themselves once they step out into the adult and working world. She loves to spend her free time napping or with her family, and is incredibly proud of her Mexican heritage. 

Contact: jocelyne@yessinstitute.org

Heather Coulter, Data & Evaluation Manager

Contact: yess.heather@gmail.com

Gabriella Lopez, Program Manager

 

Contact: Gabriella@yessinstitute.org

Lydia Vanderberg, Bookkeeper

Contact: lydia@yessinstitute.org

Jenny Washabaugh, Director of Marketing

She/Her/Hers

Jenny received her Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Michigan (2011-2015) before moving to Colorado to attend Graduate School at CU Boulder where she received her MA and PhD in Anthropology. Her dissertation research focused on understanding health outcomes for children facing environmental and social disparities. 

With a background in graphic design, visual arts, community outreach, and volunteer work with students with learning differences, she hopes to make important contributions to the Denver-area communities YESS serves.

Contact: jenny@yessinstitute.org

Julian Banks, Program Manager

He/Him/His

Julian’s motivation for joining the YESS program stems from a deep desire to make a positive impact on the lives of young individuals. His goal is to empower these youths to believe in their potential and achieve what they might have considered unattainable, ultimately nurturing them into the future leaders of tomorrow.

With over a decade of experience in various educational roles within multiple school districts, Julian brings a wealth of expertise to his work. He has served as a restorative justice coordinator and held the position of Lead Campus monitor, demonstrating his commitment to fostering a safe and supportive environment for students.

Throughout his career, Julian has dedicated himself to working with young people, and his passion for this mission continues to drive his efforts in the YESS program.

Contact: Julian@yessinstitute.org

Christina Simonetti, Director of Development

She/Her/Hers

Christina has dedicated the past 14 years of her career to working within non-profit organizations focused on improving the lives of marginalized and under-resourced communities. Her unwavering commitment to community support is deeply rooted in her own lived experiences, providing her with invaluable insight into the individuals she serves and enabling her to be a strong advocate for their needs.

Coming from a background as a first-generation college student raised in a low-income, single-family household, Christina intimately understands the systemic challenges that many YESS students encounter. She also recognizes her privilege as a white individual and acknowledges the ways in which she has benefited from systemic structures. This awareness fuels her commitment to using her platform to amplify the voices of her colleagues, young people, and the communities she interacts with, all while remaining deeply dedicated to advancing equity in education, well-being, and opportunities for youth, families, and communities.

Christina’s academic and professional journey has been closely aligned with advocacy and resource allocation, always with a keen awareness of the intersectionality that profoundly impacts individuals and communities. Her educational background includes a Bachelor’s degree in Women’s Studies from the University of South Florida, and she later earned a Master’s in Public Administration with a concentration in Gender-Based Violence from the University of Colorado, Denver.

Christina is an active participant in the 2023 Cohort of the Collective Leadership Initiative. In her leisure time, she enjoys hiking, cross-stitching, refinishing furniture, and, most importantly, spending quality time snuggling with her cat.

Contact: christina@yessinstitute.org

Dan Medina, Program Manager

He/Him/His

Daniel dropped out of Lincoln High School as a freshman, became gang-involved and ran away from home. He was married by age 18 and by 30 he had six children. He eventually turned his life around, completed his GED, started his own construction company and volunteered as a sports coach. In 1999, Lincoln High School, struggling to reduce gang activity, asked him become the school’s community / attendance liaison and a coach. Daniel searched the streets to bring the non-attending kids back to school, placed negative peer leaders in small alternative schools and increased parent involvement. His hands-on model combined with the street-credibility earned as a result of his background has helped him connect with and help turn around many “lost kids”. In 2006, the YESS Institute piloted its peer-mentoring model at Lincoln HS with Dan Medina serving as the School Liaison for the program.

Contact: daniel_medina@dpsk12.org

Meet the YESS Board

Michael Behrendsen

Mike Behrendsen is Vice President with FirstBank’s Treasury Management Department. His career started in 2013 in Arizona’s East Valley market where he focused largely on commercial lending and business development. Looking for an opportunity to expand his commercial knowledge, he moved to Colorado in 2016 to the Business Banking division where he specializes in business development through treasury management offerings. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in Business, with concentrations in Communications and International Business, from Arizona State University, he also earned his Certified Treasury Professional designation in 2017.

Rebecca Holmes

Director of Human Resources for the Dumb Friends League. She is recognized as a trusted HR advisor and strategist with demonstrated success developing creative programs to deliver  exceptional organizational performance. Rebecca holds a B.A. Liberal Arts and an M.B.A. from Colorado State University, is a Certified StrengthsFinder Coach (Gallup), and held SPHR certification.

Peter Grady

Peter is married to Eveline Grady, and they have three children together. Their daughter is a Senior and our two boys are a Freshman and 6th grader. Peter works as a Commodity Analyst for Summit Advisory, LLC Arches.

Jay Custard

Jay is a Chief Digital Advisor who works with companies to harness the power of digital technologies to drive meaningful customer experiences. An experienced digital marketing and ecommerce executive, he has worked across multiple disciplines with both large and small companies to enable successful integrated commerce experiences on a global scale. Over the past 15 years, he has been fortunate to serve the customers of Crocs, New Balance, FinishLine, Southeastern Grocers, SimpleEnergy, Mircrosoft, American Expressand Cabela’s with a focus on strategy, user experience, analytics, marketing, merchandising and technology.

Brian Russell

Brian, a Colorado Native, works as a Commercial Banker for BOK Financial. He enjoys building personal relationships, and helping companies achieve their goals by providing unique solutions to complex problems. He attended Baylor University where he studied Finance and Economics. His wife Megan, also a Colorado Native, is a First Grade Teacher in Aurora. He and his wife are active in giving back to the community. They enjoy the great outdoor activities Colorado has to offer, including skiing and hiking, as well as spending time with family and friends

Donna Cash

Donna Cash has more than 20 years management experience in education, non-profit, and corporate
settings. With master’s degrees in both Management and Counseling, Donna’s extensive work in the public and private sectors has endowed her with a comprehensive perspective on achieving program
fidelity while delivering excellent support and guidance and service.
Donna currently is a Global Professional Instructor with Crisis Prevention Institute supporting human service organizations with de-escalation and safety intervention skills for supporting relationships and
behavior management of people we serve. Donna’s pledge to educational equity is rooted in the belief that students deserve the necessary care,
nurturing, and support required to foster success. Donna is excited to join YESS Institute’ Board of Directors to continue to make change happen.

Teresa Klava, Board Chair

Teresa Sena Klava retired in 2020 as Principal of West Leadership Academy, she was responsible for establishing the school and creating the environment that promoted academic excellence leading directly to college and career readiness. Teresa served as an educator and leader in the Denver Public Schools since 1988, holding a variety of positions including Principal, Assistant Principal, mathematics instructional specialist, and teacher. In addition, she taught courses at the university level at the University of Colorado Denver. Teresa earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Education with a minor in Bilingual Education at Metropolitan State College, a Master of Arts degree in Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Denver. She completed her coursework towards an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership at the University of Denver. Teresa and her husband, Greg, reside in Golden, CO. Together they have raised 4 children and currently enjoy spoiling 8 grandchildren. As a mother and longtime educator, she strongly believes that parents and community are essential partners to ensure student success. Her parents, both retired DPS principals, have inspired her to continually seek opportunities for access and excellence for each and every student.

Courtney Mathis

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Isaac Solano

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Rob Gillespie

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Connect with our Mission? Join the YESS Team!

Do you have a passion for supporting youth and communities?  

We seek passionate leaders who want to further our mission to bring positive youth development to the community, and to help students find “their Road to Success.” To learn about job opportunities, look us up on Indeed. Our hiring season is typically near the end of the Spring Semester. If you are interested in joining the Board of Directors to gain a voice in the direction of our agency, please contact our Co-Founder and Executive Director, Carlo Kriekels, at 303.674.3532 or carlo@yessinstitute.org

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