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 & Executive Director

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.


John Withaar, Chief Operating Officer


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.


Saira Ali, Director of Post-Secondary Success

Saira was born in Pakistan, but grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She moved to Denver, Colorado in 2015. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in International Area Studies and Political Science from the University of Oklahoma. She went on to earn her Master of Education in Community Development and Action from Vanderbilt University. Saira has held multiple roles in the non-profit world including development, fundraising, volunteer management, and most recently leading a mentoring program in local underserved high schools.  Saira is dedicated to social justice and leading social change. She recognizes the shortcomings in our education systems and is excited to focus on college access and educational equity in her role as Director of Post-Secondary Success.


Alex Rodriguez, Director of Training and Curriculum Development


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.


Dan Medina, Program Manager

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.


Seantay Patterson, Program Manager

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


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.


Rose Leaven, Program Manager

Rose was born, raised, and attended college in Iowa. She earned her BA in Spanish and Global Studies with an emphasis in peace, conflict, and Human Rights/ Latin America, and a minor in religious studies at the University of Northern Iowa. After college, she started working at a non profit that provides mobile health clinics for migrant farm workers. She then moved to Colorado where she worked for a sexual health clinic in Boulder for 4.5 years. Here, she ran the youth services department, where she taught sexual health in schools and mentored a peer education group. It was in this position she found a passion for working with and being a trusted adult to young people. In her free time she enjoys hiking, spending time with her friends, cooking, doing trivia and petting all the dogs she can.


Cheyenne Maestas, Program Manager

Cheyenne is a Colorado Native who grew up in the Sunnyside Neighborhood in North Denver. She is a North High School Alumni and has a deep connection to the community. Before coming to YESS, Cheyenne worked in a Title 1 Jeffco Public School for 6 years, assisting with student and family needs. Outside of work, Cheyenne enjoys playing volleyball, watching comedy movies, and playing card games. Her passion for positively impacting youth has led her to YESS where she continues to make a difference.

Debbie Schaller, Program Manager

Debbie was born in New York and moved to Colorado when she was a sophomore in High School.  She has always had a passion for youth and got her Bachelors in Psychology and her Masters in School Counseling.  She comes from a background of working in the non-profit realm at Young Americans Center for Financial Education, educating youth 5-8th grade on the importance of good financial stewardship.  Middle school has always been her favorite age group to work with!

In her free time, she enjoys hiking, running, spending time with her labradoodle and her friends.  Debbie has a personal goal of conquering as many 14-ers as she can and has done 8 so far.


Jessica Highstreet, Program Manager

Jessica Highstreet grew up in sunny Florida where she attended Indian River State College, and earned her degree in Exceptional Student Education. She began her career by teaching and tutoring in a variety of settings with a wide-range of age groups. Since moving to Colorado 5 years ago, Jessica has worked as a job coach and benefits coordinator for individuals with developmental disabilities. In her free time, Jessica enjoys attending concerts, taking her dog to the park, and going to karaoke with friends.


Devani Lemmon, Program Manager

Devani is a Colorado native who has recently returned to her home state after living elsewhere. After college she moved to Texas for a few years while trying to figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. There she became a certified yoga instructor and began her first job working in schools. She moved to DC to pursue her master’s in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and devoted much of her studies to understanding the school to prison pipeline. During this time, she worked for Becky’s Fund, a non-profit working on domestic violence prevention and response, as well as The Pulitzer Center, a journalism non-profit. These experiences allowed her the opportunity to teach topics as varied as dating violence prevention and consent to media literacy in schools throughout the DC area. Since returning to Colorado she has devoted her work to anti-racist and restorative practices in schools and will be working towards a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Policy starting the Fall of 2021.


Heather Coulter, Data & Evaluation Manager


Lydia Vanderberg, Bookkeeper


Jenny Washabaugh, Marketing Coordinator

Jenny received her Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Michigan (2011-2015) before moving to Colorado to attend Graduate School at CU Boulder (2015-2022). 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 YESS Institute and Denver-area communities.


Brittany Paris, Program Manager


Meet the YESS Board

Michael Behrendsen, Board Chair

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.

Colleen Stanley

Colleen Stanley is president of SalesLeadership, a sales development firm. Her company provides emotional intelligence, sales and sales leadership training.  She is the author of the bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence For Sales Success.  Colleen is married to Jim and they enjoy hiking, time with friends and learning new “things.

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.

Giana Gaughan

Giana Gaughan has more than a decade of experience as a communications professional. Most of her career has been dedicated to bridging gaps between the way in which an organization wants to be seen and the way in which they are perceived by the market. She is a firm believer in the power of storytelling and the importance of curiosity. Giana has worked at award-winning public relations agencies and currently serves as the Director of Corporate Communications at Louisville-based Global Healthcare Exchange (GHX). She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in both English Literature and Communication from Denison University. She resides in Chicago with her husband and three rescue animals (including their dog who traveled all the way from New Delhi, India). In their spare time, they enjoy exploring the latest restaurants the city has to offer, traveling, running, tailgating U of Michigan football games and attending concerts (when their music taste aligns).

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.

Lisa Brenner Freimann

Lisa practiced law for over 20 years, advocating for the rights of others and representing the interests of the people of Colorado as a First Assistant Attorney General for the Colorado Attorney General’s Office. She holds a Bachelor of Business Administration from Emory University and a J.D. from the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law. Lisa is married to Michael, a practicing attorney and colonel in the Colorado Air National Guard and has two teenage sons who attend Denver Public Schools. She loves watching her kids play soccer, hiking, gardening, painting and making pottery.

Kelli Raleigh Deferme

Kelli Deferme is a seasoned community engagement professional with progressive experience within public and private sectors. She is a natural problem solver, community builder and advocate. Kelli lives with her husband, Bart, and three daughters in Aurora. When she’s not working or volunteering, you can find her cycling, reading, cooking, or enjoying colorful Colorado with her family.

Joshua Rathke

Josh is a marketing & sales leader with proven success managing large national retail accounts and multimillion-dollar brands worldwide for HP Inc. He enjoys analyzing complex business challenges and coming up with strategies to drive business success for both HP and its partners. Josh lives with wife, Anne, and their two children. Born in Colorado, he enjoys spending time outside running and skiing with his family & friends.

Teresa Klava

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.

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

Stay informed with YESS Institute

Sign Up for Newsletter