The employees of Abilities First are the ones that open doors for people trying to succeed in life. They are the ones that break down barriers for people with special needs. Our committed staff members provide enriching and meaningful experiences to those we support every day. See how remarkable they are.
Jeffery Fox joined Abilities First as Chief Executive Officer in July 2013. As the Chief Executive Officer of Abilities First, Jeff now has the privilege of overseeing programs and services that touch the lives of many children and adults across our region. He is proud to say that the mission of Abilities First overlaps heavily with his own personal mission.
Jeffery has been working with people with intellectual and developmental challenges since he began volunteering at the Newark Developmental Center in the 1980’s. Since then, he has held many different paid and unpaid positions in the Finger Lakes Region, Western New York and now in the Hudson Valley. He received all of his degrees from the State University of New York at Buffalo, including his doctorate in Educational Psychology in 2008. He has co-authored numerous articles and research papers that were published in peer-reviewed academic journals, such as Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, Child Psychiatry and Development and Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities.
Jeff’s community service is also related to his personal mission. He is on the Board of the Child Care Council of Dutchess and Putnam and the Advisory Board for the Mid-Hudson Children’s Museum. He is also the Vice Chair of Hudson Valley Service Providers (HVSP), which is a coalition of 22 organizations across the Hudson Valley that collaborate to meet the challenges of New York State’s Medicaid Redesign. As part of his role in HVSP, he is a member of the Board of Directors of LIFEPlan Care Coordination Organization (CCO), which is one of seven CCOs for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities that are authorized by the NYS Department of Health. He was selected in 2016 by the Dutchess County Regional Chamber of Commerce as an Athena Honoree for empowering women in leadership.
Ellen Griffin serves as the Chief Financial and Administrative Officer and oversees Human Resources, Finance, Maintenance, Program Development, and IT. Ellen has had a distinguished and progressive career of over 30 years committed to the financial development of Abilities First, Inc. as its Assistant Director of Finance, Director of Finance, Controller, Associate Executive Directors, and Assistant Executive Director.
A graduate of Marist College, Ellen has always focused her career on accounting and financial reporting, with the majority of her time spent in the nonprofit sector. She describes herself as a translator between those who do and do not speak numbers. Ellen is the first member of Abilities First to be a graduate of the National Leadership Institute on Developmental Disabilities. Ellen was a member of the January 2017 class.
Ellen values her time spent with other local nonprofits and has served on several Boards of Directors, including service as the current Treasurer of Hudson Valley Hospice. She is also a certified CQL trainer.
A lifelong resident of the Hudson Valley, Ellen frequently hikes, skis and kayaks, is an avid sports fan and enjoys spends time visiting with her children.
Melissa McCoy joined Abilities First as Chief Advancement Officer in December 2014. Melissa leads the Advancement initiatives, including: marketing, communications, philanthropy, community relations & business development.
Prior to joining the executive team at Abilities First, Melissa served as Vice President of the Elant Foundation, with three decades of experience in community service, fundraising, event planning and project management. Her earlier career was in the design & construction industry as Project Manager for Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, and as Principal for Design Perceptions.
McCoy, a graduate of Marymount College, has received her international professional certification as a Certified Fund Raising Executive. She is a graduate of the Leadership Dutchess, Patterns for Progress Fellows Program and Leadership Orange. She served the Association of Fundraising Professionals, as Mid-Hudson Chapter President, board member, event chairperson and mentor, and to the AFP International Committee on Directorship (International Board selection committee) as well as – Northeast U.S. District Representative, and event presentations.
Her former board and committee service includes: American Cancer Society – Eastern Division, YMCA of Newburgh, Cornell Cooperative Extension, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County, Junior Achievement of the Hudson Valley, Orange County Ballet Theatre, Special Olympics, and as a founding member of the Arts in Healthcare Committee of the Orange County Arts Council. She has served as a grant reviewer for the United Way of Orange & Dutchess, mentor for AFP and the Dutchess County Regional Chamber of Commerce Career Mentorship program. Melissa is a member of the Poughkeepsie Arlington Rotary Club, Garden Club of Orange & Dutchess and serves on the Board of Directors of the Orange County Chamber of Commerce.
Melissa is the recipient of the 2018 ATHENA Award, Leadership Dutchess 2018 Distinguished Alumni Award, 2014 Woman of Achievement Award by the YWCA of Orange County and the Girl Scout Council Heart of the Hudson, and in 2008 while Alumni Association Board President she was awarded the Marymount College of Fordham Universities – Centennial Award for leadership.
Kelly Martinez is the Vice President of Human Resources and Corporate Compliance where she leads the continually expanding employment base for the agency. She spent ten years’ in corporate human resources before joining Abilities First in 2010 as Human Resources Coordinator, by her desire to help others, and inspired by a close family member with special needs.
Kelly received her Bachelor’s Degree in Business with a concentration in Human Resource Management from SUNY Empire College. Kelly holds both her Professional in Human Resources and Society for Human Resource Management-CP Certifications and is a member of the Mid-Hudson Society of Human Resources Chapter.
Kelly enjoys baking as a hobby, and is known around the office for her cupcakes. Her taste testers at home include her three children.
Leann Coyle is the Vice President of Educational Services for Abilities First. Leann was recently promoted to the position and now oversees the Abilities First early education programs including UPK and the Preschool and the Abilities First School in LaGrange and Cornwall, totaling an enrollment of over 300 students. She was previously the Director of Preschools and UPK. She came to Abilities First in 1998 as the Head Teacher at the former Beacon location.
She received her undergraduate degree from SUNY Oneonta and her Master’s in Special and General Education from Mount Saint Mary’s College. After teaching preschool special education she went on to obtain her School District Administration Degree from SUNY New Paltz in 2005.
For more than 25 years, Leann has been dedicated to providing quality educational experiences for preschool children with special needs and fostering life-long learning.
Leann lives in Dutchess County with her husband and twin boys, and enjoys the beach, kayaking, and photography.
Mark Nace is the Vice President of OPWDD (New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities) and Community Services. Mark received a B.S. in Political Science in 2001 from SUNY Oneonta and his Master’s Degree in Human Services in 2017, Suma Cum Lauda from Kaplan University.
In 2001, Mark began his career in a direct support role and held a variety of management positions with progressively more responsibilities in residential services. In 2005, he joined Abilities First as an Assistant Director of Day Habilitation Services and was later promoted to the Director of Day Habilitation Services in 2013. Mark became the Senior Director of Day Habilitation and Employment Services in 2018, overseeing both adult day and vocational programs. Mark has been an active member of the New York State Association of Day Services provider for several years and currently sit on the board of directors.
Mark works with his management team to oversee an array of services and supports provided by Abilities First Inc. He and his team strive to ensure optimum service delivery through a person-centered approach that incorporates the CQL.
Kim Ryder is the Director of Finance for Abilities First. She joined the agency in 1999 as a Staff Accountant, from which she was continually promoted to Accountant-A/R Manager, then to Accounting Coordinator and now as Controller. Kim is committed to develop strategies and help navigate and ensure the financial strength of the organization. Her interest and commitment to the industry began when her younger brother was born with Down’s Syndrome, which engaged her to volunteer at the age of 16 at the Abilities First summer school program where her brother attended.
Kim serves as the Treasurer of the Vassar Warner Home Board of Trustees and previously served as Treasurer of Dutchess County Special Olympics Board of Directors. She volunteers at Special Olympic Events when possible.
She lives in Lagrange with her husband of 35+ years and is enjoying her first grandchild.
Donovan Ashe is the Director of Residential Services. Donovan joined Abilities First, Inc. in 2001 as the Program Manager at the Ermo IRA residence. Since that time, he has served in various roles in Residential Services including Program Coordinator, Administrative Program Coordinator and Assistant Director of Residential Services, leading to his appointment in his current role.
Donovan has over 27 years in the human services field and has worked with people of all ages and disabilities including at-risk adolescents, individuals with Autism and individuals with varying levels of intellectual and physical disabilities. Donovan is dedicated to helping support people with special needs in achieving their goals.
Harro Penk is the Director of Information Technology for Abilities First. He has been with the agency since 2009. Harro is committed to developing and maintaining the communication systems and network infrastructure and leads a focused team of IT professionals. His IT experience stretches back to his High School days when he won a regional programming competition in 1989.
Harro has worked for Soudronic, Home Depot, IBM and Watson Pharmaceuticals (Actavis) and served in the US Army and NY Army National Guard from 1993 to 2001. He regularly volunteers for the Dutchess Community College Foundation, is married since 2005 and is a pet parent to a mixed pack of rescued and purebred dogs. Dedicated to mentoring his team, he also enjoys fly tying/fishing, FDM 3D printing and exercise.
Paul Kowalski joined Abilities First in 2007. Starting as a Facilities Technician he was promoted to Facilities Supervisor and now Facilities Director. Paul has thirty years experience in the Construction and Facilities Maintenance field and is committed to the safety and well being of everyone in our Facilities. Paul lives in the Poughkeepsie area with his wife and daughter. In his spare time he enjoys playing Golf, hiking, camping, and spending time with his family & dog.
Michele Dendera is the Director of Nursing of Abilities First Nursing Department. Michele received her A.A.S. from SUNY Orange in 2006; her B.S. in Human Development with a concentration in Psychology in 2017 and her B.S.N in 2019. Michele is a member of Sigma Theta Tau and the American Nurses Association.
In the 1984, Michele started her career as a resident counselor and worked her way up to Residential Manager while working for NYSARC, Inc. Michele completed her A.A.S. and entered in the nursing field while continuing to support persons in the Human Services Field. Michele has worked for several NYSARC, Inc. agencies as a Nursing Coordinator, Education and Training Nurse, and Nursing Director. Michele has also worked at a local hospital and served as Assistant Director of Nursing in one of the areas’ local nursing homes.
Michele works with her nursing team overseeing Education, Day Program and Residential Nurses.
Dr. Sarah Branham is the Clinical Director. She began her journey at Abilities First in August of 2021. She also is the Clinical Director for In Flight Inc. Sarah earned her Ph.D. in General Psychology in March of 2020. Sarah obtained both her Bachelor’s and Master’s in Psychology from SUNY New Paltz. While finishing her Masters in 2014, Sarah began working as a residential Staff. At this time, Sarah found her love and passion for this field and decided to make this her career. When she finished her Master’s she transferred to the clinical department. Since then Sarah has stayed integrated in the clinical department where was promoted from Behavior Specialist to her current Director roles.
Brenda Douglas is the Director of Day hab services. Brenda received her Master’s degree in Human Services Management in 2018, from Kaplan University.
In 1984 Brenda began her career in a direct support role and held a variety of management positions with progressively more responsibilities in residential services. In 2012, she joined the Abilities First Inc. as day habilitation coordinator, was later promoted to Assistant Director of day habilitation services. Brenda became Director of Day habilitation services in May of 2021.
Brenda is a SCIP-R, CPR/First Aid, certified CQL, and Front line supervisor trainer. Brenda enjoys time training and mentoring staff to develop future leaders. Brenda is dedicated to assisting with supporting the individuals we serve to meet their goals.
Tammy Neal is the Director of Employment Services for Abilities First. Tammy joined AFI in 1983 as job coach for the enclave work sites, from which she was promoted to Employment supervisor overseeing numerous worksites located in the community. Tammy left employment program for 2 years where she was the Coordinator for our supplemental Day Hab. Although she loved assisting the individuals with “Life Skills” she knew employment services was where she wanted to be. Tammy returned to Employment with role of the Assistant Director of Employment Services.
Tammy is committed to assist individuals for obtaining and sustaining employment in their community.
Tammy enjoys spending time with her family.
I grew up in Staten Island, NY, where I always dreamed of being a teacher and was a student council leader from an early age through high school. I have been an early childhood educator since the 1990’s after graduating NYU. I served as a founding member of the NYC Universal Pre-Kindergarten Providers Association and President of the Early Educators of Richmond County. In 2004, I moved to the Mid-Hudson Valley and earned a master’s in special education at SUNY New Paltz after which I developed programming for children with special needs. In 2015, I earned a post graduate degree in Educational Leadership from SUNY Stony Brook. I joined the Abilities First Administrative team in 2018 and am very proud to lead the delivery and expansion of our preschool services in Orange County.
In my free time I love to hike with my dogs, garden and cook. This year I have been cultivating 20 rare varieties of heirloom tomatoes. I have a 12 year-old son who keeps me young and a 27 year-old son who keeps me wise. I love spending time with my large, loud and proud extended Italian family.
Gina is the Director of Community Services. She graduated from Ramapo College of New Jersey with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in 2006.
Gina became employed with Abilities First, Inc. as a Medicaid Service Coordinator in 2007 where she worked closely with participants and families to link them with various community agencies and resources. In 2013, Gina was promoted to MSC Supervisor and in 2015 promoted to Director of Service Coordination, where she served until the transition into her current position.
Gina oversees family support grant programs, family education and training, Community Habilitation and Respite services. Her interest and dedication to working with individuals with special needs stems from her younger sister with multiple disabilities.
Maryann Schipani is the Assistant Principal for the preschool special education programs located at Myers Corners Preschool and Hyde Park UPK programs at Abilities First, Inc.
She is currently a Doctoral student in the Transformational Leadership program at the University of New England. She holds a Certificate of Advanced Study in School Leadership PK-12 from SUNY New Paltz. She is NYS certified as a School Building Leader and School District Leader. She is also a New York State certified teacher in the following areas: Early Childhood Education (Birth-Grade 2); Childhood Education (Grades 1-6); Teaching Students with Disabilities (Birth-2) and Teaching Students with Disabilities (Grades 1-6). She has also done significant coursework in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) K-12. She possesses a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education and Teaching Students with Disabilities from Mercy College. Maryann has a training certificate in Mediation and Conflict Resolution.
Maryann has twenty years of experience in the field of education. She has worked in general education, special education and inclusion classrooms. Prior to joining Abilities First, she had seven years of experience in supervision and administration in special education programs.
Maryann enjoys spending time with her husband, three sons, her parents and her three dogs. She enjoys engaging in volunteer work including animal adoption, working food pantries and donating blood. She enjoys bowling, attending concerts and attending sporting events.