Staff

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Photo: Breakthrough Collaborative

National Leadership 

Elissa Vanaver, Chief Executive Officer

Elissa Vanaver became the CEO of the Breakthrough Collaborative in 2017, after more than a decade of leading growth at the Collaborative’s Miami affiliate. At Breakthrough Miami, her roles included volunteer, founding board chair, Director of Strategic Development, and CEO. In spring 2018, Elissa was a judge for the New York Life Foundation’s Excellence in Summer Learning Awards. Before joining Breakthrough, Elissa was an award-winning newspaper editor and media executive, holding a variety of positions, including Managing Editor, Vice President of Human Resources, and Chief of Staff for the Miami Herald, which publishes in English and Spanish. Her 25-year journalism career also included management, editing, and news-writing at the Dallas Times Herald and the San Jose Mercury News.

Rachel Martinez de Canada, Chief People & Program Officer

Rachel Martinez de Canada brings extensive recruiting, admissions, and outreach experience to Breakthrough Collaborative. Prior to joining Breakthrough, she worked as the Associate Director of Admissions at the University of Minnesota Law School where she was responsible for recruitment, administered the school’s scholarship program, and designed a summer admissions preparation program for underrepresented students. Rachel also worked in undergraduate admissions where she served as the Chicano/Latino Outreach Coordinator and Admissions Counselor and has also worked in corporate recruiting. A proud Gopher, Rachel graduated from the University of Minnesota with Distinction with a BA in sociology and Chicano studies. Outside of the office, Rachel spends her time with her husband and young daughters.
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Jeremy Gough, Chief Development Officer

Jeremy Gough brings two decades of experience serving progressive education and humanitarian missions, from creating schools and programs for communities in the US, to supporting efforts to help disenfranchised and displaced people across the world. Prior to joining Breakthrough, Jeremy was the Chief Development Officer for Concern Worldwide, an international NGO that works to end extreme poverty in 25 of the world’s poorest countries. Before this, Jeremy helped expand The Urban Assembly, a nonprofit that creates and supports Title I public secondary schools in NYC, where he served as Director of Institutional Advancement. Jeremy also helped transform Urban Arts Partnership from a small nonprofit into a leading arts-integrated education group with a national reach, serving as Executive Vice President for the last three years of his tenure there. Along the way, he has led numerous fundraising and communications campaigns, securing competitive federal, state, and local funding, partnering with leading foundations and companies and uniting communities of dedicated individuals to create meaningful impact. Jeremy graduated from Brown University with a BA in American studies, with Honors. Outside of the office, he enjoys making music, and volunteering in the community, including chairing the board of a nonprofit preschool. He spends as much time as he can with his wife and energetic young sons.

Ieesha McKinzie Collins, Managing Director of External Relations

Ieesha McKinzie Collins rejoins the Breakthrough Collaborative team, having worked for the organization over a decade ago. She brings back with her a unique set of experiences from across the nonprofit, corporate, and K-12 sectors which will bring a fresh perspective to approaching strategic communications, brand development, marketing initiatives, and fundraising. Prior to joining Breakthrough, Ieesha led external communications and media for KIPP Texas Public Schools. Before that, she spent five years leading marketing communications campaign planning for several global General Mills brands, and also served as the Education Program Manager for the General Mills Foundation.

Ieesha values being a lifelong learner and has participated in several leadership programs including The Broad Residency in Urban Education (TBR ’17-19), Management Leadership for Tomorrow, and Teach For America (Atlanta ’06). Ieesha was introduced to Breakthrough during her sophomore year of college as a teaching fellow with Breakthrough Atlanta. This sparked her commitment to educational equity. She went on to work for the Breakthrough National Office and later served on the boards of Breakthrough Twin Cities and Breakthrough Houston. Ieesha is a proud first-generation college graduate who earned a BA in journalism from Hampton University and an MS in integrated marketing communications from Northwestern University. Outside of the office, Ieesha enjoys spending time with family and friends and hosting social events and group gatherings for fun.

Sam Long, Managing Director of Technology

Photo & bio to come.

Nicole Noga, Managing Director of Operations

Nicole Noga joined Breakthrough Collaborative with a background in psychological research and lab management. At The University of Chicago, she assisted in conducting a randomized clinical trial of eating disorder treatments as well as several studies examining the effects of psychoactive drugs. Originally from the Chicago area, she earned her AB in psychology from The University of Chicago and was a “Graduate-Student-at-Large” at The University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration.

National Staff

Jonathan Appleby, Director of Recruitment

Jonathan joins Breakthrough from his most recent position at New Door Ventures in San Francisco where he helped to execute a workforce development program for underserved transitional age youth by partnering with over a hundred businesses to provide a variety of professional experiences. There, he served on the Youth Development team as a Specialist and was responsible for developing case plans, tracking participants for success in the workplace as well as continuing to make gains in education and preparing for post-secondary success. Jonathan has also spent significant time in business partnerships outreach, cultivating relationships, and working to retain current partners throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. He has served as the Youth Director at Grace Fellowship Community Church for nine years and has partnered with several homeless outreach efforts in the San Francisco area. Jonathan also taught at San Quentin Penitentiary for several semesters and has long had a concern for addressing the gaps in diversity, equity, and inclusion that exist in education and the contemporary workforce. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and two sons and enjoys reading, coaching baseball, and getting out into the abundant natural world of the surrounding area.

Kyle Bobrick, National Communications Manager

Kyle graduated with a bachelor’s degree in film studies from the University of Colorado. He joined Breakthrough Kent Denver’s administrative team in January 2011, and has since held positions as an 8th Grade Dean of Students and a High School Coordinator. Kyle has experience in education as a substitute teacher within Denver Public Schools and as a Breakthrough teacher for four consecutive summers. He spent three years as a cultural exchange English teacher in Denver’s sister city, Takayama, Japan. He recently earned his M.A. in communication management at the University of Denver, and previously worked as Director of Communications for Breakthrough Kent Denver.

Claire Contonente, Administrative Associate

Claire joins Breakthrough as a recent graduate of Occidental College in Los Angeles. There, she majored in English and worked in institutional advancement. An East Bay Area native, she is excited to be back home and helping ensure that every student has the support network and the opportunity to attend college and achieve their goals. When she is not at work, you can likely find Claire reading, hiking, or hanging out with her cat. She hopes to one day become a high school English teacher, encouraging students to love literature and grammar!

Jee Deogracias, Director of Research & Evaluation

Jee comes to Breakthrough’s National Office having worn many hats within the K-12 education space. Most recently, she was a Senior Research Director at Hanover Research, managing research projects and program evaluations for school districts, state departments of education, and education-related non-profits across the country. Before this, she was an Evaluation and Assessment Analyst with Alexandria City Public Schools, and an elementary band teacher with Fairfax County Public Schools. She received a Bachelor of Music in flute performance with a teaching certification at the University of Michigan, a Master of Public Policy at Georgetown University, and a Doctor of Philosophy in education policy at the University of Maryland. Outside of the office, she spends the majority of her time with her husband and daughters and loves volunteering with the Special Olympics.

Leah Ehinger, Development Associate

Leah joins the National team as Development Associate to help support and develop effective fundraising systems for Breakthrough. Her background in social work with an emphasis on nonprofit leadership, philanthropy, and research makes her an ideal fit for this role. Prior to joining Breakthrough, Leah worked in varying roles with youth from co-teaching special education pre-K to independent living case management for youth transitioning out of foster care. She is passionate about raising adequate funds to ensure programmatic and organizational success. She recently completed an MSW from Indiana University, loves to travel, do yoga, read and go camping.

Phyllis Elick, Director of High School and College Bound Programming

Phyllis comes to the National Office after nearly seven years of experience at Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia facilitating high-school programming and college counseling. Phyllis has extensive experience in student service as well as program development. She has been a teacher in an independent school and worked with other college access organizations serving under-resourced schools and students in the Philadelphia area. Phyllis has her BA from Smith College and her MS Ed in education policy from the University of Pennsylvania.


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Kirra Hughes, Junior Salesforce Administrator

Kirra comes to Breakthrough’s Salesforce team after several years building and administering the Victim Case Management System, a global record keeping system focused on anti-human trafficking. She is passionate about assisting nonprofits access and engage successfully with technology to gain deeper insights and have greater impact. Other work includes environmental education in Oregon, traditional Tibetan medicine projects in Switzerland, and the women’s movement in Nepal. She has a Masters in conflict transformation and international peacebuilding from the School of International Training in Vermont. While not working or traveling, she can be found swimming laps in the pool, painting watercolor, or hiking with her dog and husband.

Natalie Jacobs, Recruitment Associate

During her time as an undergraduate student, Natalie spent two summers as a teaching fellow with Breakthrough Cincinnati, where her passion for the Collaborative was solidified. In her role as Recruitment Associate with the National team, Natalie brings experience in undergraduate admission and a BA in education to the forefront to recruit the next generation of teaching fellows. Outside of work, Natalie enjoys traveling, cooking, practicing yoga, and cheering for Butler Basketball.

Danielle May, National Grants Manager

Danielle May is a seasoned grants professional with over 13 years of experience in leveraging her craft as a storyteller and connector to secure and manage diverse sources of funding. She has successfully raised funds for organizations in the fields of higher education, early childhood education, health and human services, oncology, and maternal health. She most recently served as the Director of Development with Heartline Ministries in Haiti. Danielle loves to spend time outdoors with her husband and their two children and fell in love with rock climbing after an adventure trip with fellow cancer survivors.

Jacob Speedy, Salesforce Platform Manager

Jacob Speedy is the Salesforce Platform Manager at Breakthrough Collaborative. Jacob comes from the world of Salesforce consulting, software engineering, and served an AmeriCorps year at Breakthrough Central Texas in 2015-16. Jacob lives in Austin with his dog Riley and enjoys ultimate frisbee and hiking in his free time.

Meredith Zackey, Senior Director of Programs

Meredith Zackey joins Breakthrough Collaborative with nearly ten years of experience in the education field. She brings her experience as Program Director for Breakthrough Manchester in New Hampshire and her work with Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia as Dean of Students, Program Assistant, and Dean of Faculty to her new role. Outside of Breakthrough, Meredith served two years as an AmeriCorps member with City Year Greater Philadelphia and supported the Principal Effectiveness team at DCPS. She holds an MPP in public policy from Georgetown University and currently resides in Philadelphia.
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Breakthrough Birmingham 

Mariohn Michel, Executive Director, Breakthrough Birmingham

Mariohn joins Breakthrough Birmingham after four years of experience in the South Bronx as a K-8 Data Analyst, Testing and Program Coordinator, and Social Studies Department Chair at a K-12 school. Dissecting the story told by assessment data was a stepping stone for her to find creative solutions to classroom differentiation, curriculum design and execution, and programming efficacy. Through Teach for America, she was also a social studies teacher at a high school in rural Alabama, which fostered her love of the state and its unique culture. Mariohn graduated magna cum laude from Florida International University with a BS in secondary social studies education.

Liora Chessin, Program Director, Breakthrough Birmingham

Prior to joining the Breakthrough team, Liora Chessin worked in both public and private schools, as well as the nonprofit sector. Liora started her career in education in rural North Carolina as a part of Teach For America. Liora taught 12th grade English and started the school’s first Advancement Placement English Literature course. Liora most recently taught middle school English and history in a Birmingham-area school where she organized a professional learning community for the faculty and created the student-run Leadership Through Library program. Liora also worked as the school’s Director of Admissions and Communications building relationships with stakeholders and families. Liora has managed a state-wide college access program, worked in various marketing positions, and designed diverse curricula including middle school humanities and social justice education. Liora also recently finished her Masters in Education from Brandeis University in Massachusetts with a speciality in teacher leadership. Liora has a BA in English from the Ohio State University’s Honor College where she graduated summa cum laude.