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People & Partners

meet the people and partners helping out Thrive By Five

Meet the People & Partners Who Help Us Thrive

In order to ensure that all children in Pinellas County are ready for kindergarten, we rely on a diverse group of partners, committees, and individuals. Together, we can best align efforts and resources to make sure the right help gets in front of the right people — as efficiently as possible.

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Director

Dr. Keesha Benson is an inclusive and equity-centered community practitioner with over 15 years of experience engaging in community-level work with children and families, nonprofit organizations, and community stakeholders. Her work has crossed multiple disciplines including child welfare, public health, business and education. Her service in both a programmatic and research capacity on numerous community grant projects has led to an in-depth understanding of community engagement at various levels with culturally diverse populations. She is dedicated to cultural humility and ensuring that community work is completed in an inclusive and culturally relevant manner.

Dr. Benson received both her Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Social Work with a focus in community intervention, and a Master of Social Work (MSW) from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She also holds a Master of Business Administration (MBA) and Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Business Administration from Florida A&M University. As someone trained in community intervention and community participatory practice, she is passionate about ensuring that stakeholders have access to the needed resources and information that leads to long-standing transformative change.

 

Most recently, Dr. Benson served as the Manager and Community Facilitator for the Grow Smarter Initiative, where she successfully led community partners, stakeholders, and 90+ organizations in the multi-sector work of equitable economic growth for the city of St. Petersburg. Prior to returning to her hometown (St. Petersburg, FL), Dr. Benson served as an Assistant Professor of Instruction at Temple University School of Social Work, College of Public Health in Philadelphia, PA, where she saw firsthand the importance of a strong educational foundation and the lifelong opportunities that it leads to for social mobility and future economic opportunity. Her experience as an Associate with the Strong Couples Strong Children project, a federally funded healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood initiative based in Durham (North Carolina), allowed her to engage in a community partner approach to addressing the needs of low-income expectant parents as they navigated the co-parental relationship for improved child outcomes.

Dr. Benson is a proud resident of Pinellas County who lives in St. Petersburg with her husband and three children. As the mother of young children (ages 7 and under), she understands firsthand the importance of the collective work of ensuring an equitable, accessible, responsive and accountable childhood development system that will serve as a guiding force to prepare the children of Pinellas County for kindergarten and beyond.

Steering Commitee

Comprising key players in the early childhood landscape, the Thrive By Five steering committee provides strategic guidance, direct access to a breadth of knowledge and resources, and unique opportunities to collaborate and align endeavors.

Jalessa Blackshear

Jalessa Blackshear is a mother, visual and recording artist, student, social activist, and community organizer who resides in St. Petersburg, Florida. Born and raised in Cape May, New Jersey, Blackshear flocked to the Gulf of Mexico in 2011 to align with her ancestral roots.

Parent Representative

LaDonna Butler

Dr. LaDonna Butler is the Founder/Executive Director of The Well for Life, a Wellness Center located in St. Petersburg, Fl. She serves as a Learning and Development Facilitator and Adjunct Faculty at the University of South Florida - Family Studies Center. She is the Chair of the Board of Directors for the Healthy Start Coalition of Pinellas. Dr. Butler has a graduate degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and a Doctorate in Counselor Education and Supervision. She is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Qualified Supervisor, and Master Certified Addictions Professional in the State of Florida. In addition to these interests and accomplishments, She is most honored to have birthed and “Mothered” 5 of the most beautiful and brilliant children; Imari, Kira, Mason, Oren, and Quinci. She is most loved by her husband, Minister Ulas D. Butler, who serves as Co-Founder and Spiritual Guide for The Well for Life, LLC.

USF Family Studies Center

Lindsay Carson

Lindsay Carson is a hands-on nonprofit executive and early educator known for research-based decisions, performance management and efficient operational management; further recognized for building collaborative relationships to maximize community impact.


She effectively leads the Early Learning Coalition through leadership transition, deficit reduction and strengthening the reputation and partnerships of the organization in order to maximize services to children, families and providers.

Early Learning Coalition

Dr Davis

Dr. Davis is a business executive and entrepreneur with extensive background and expertise in business strategy and management in operations, human resources, risk management, finance, facilities and real estate. He currently serves as the Head Start Director for Bay Area Head Start/Early Head Start programs with Lutheran Services, Inc. Prior to his current assignment, he served as the Director of Grants Management with Lutheran Services Florida, Inc. He is a former Visiting Professor of Management at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, and former Adjunct Professor of Management and Finance at St. Petersburg College. He is the former CEO of Bay Area Medical Supplies, Inc., and former Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer for Danka Business Systems headquartered in St. Petersburg, Florida.

LSF Head Start/COQEBS

Beth Houghton

Beth A. Houghton serves as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) for the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County (JWB), a mission-driven organization with a 74-year history of strengthening the lives of children and families in Pinellas County. Ms. Houghton is passionate about improving the lives of children, both because they are the innocent who cannot control their circumstances and because, as a society, improving children’s lives today and into the future is simply a smart investment. In her role as CEO, Ms. Houghton oversees an annual program and general government budget of $79.3 million and a workforce of 62, while ensuring policies set forth by the JWB Governing Board are effectively implemented. She serves as the nexus between the JWB Board and day-to-day operations of the organization, and advance and oversee accountability systems and measurements to ensure effective use of the community’s investments. In her leadership role, Ms. Houghton advocates for children’s issues and underserved families. She creates strategic partnerships and oversees the funding of high-quality programs that benefit tens of thousands of Pinellas County children and families annually. Ms. Houghton came to the Juvenile Welfare Board from the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, where she held the top position – first Executive Director then Chief Executive Officer – for eight years. Under her leadership, the organization expanded its reach to eight food, shelter, and health care programs that distribute to more than 55,000 people monthly, provide free health and wellness services to 9,000 annually, and guide another 400 on their path to independent living through shelter services. Ms. Houghton graduated with highest honors from Stetson University College of Law, earned her MBA with highest honors from Tulane University Graduate School of Business, and her BA with honors in Economics and Political Science from Newcomb College of Tulane University. Ms. Houghton is licensed to practice law in Florida and served as Chairman of the Board of Directors for Signature Bank in St. Petersburg. Her previous employment includes serving as Chief Financial Officer and General Counsel of John’s Hopkins All Children’s Health System. Ms. Houghton has taken numerous mission trips to rural Honduras and currently serves on the Board for the Foundation for International Missions which supports a rural health clinic. She also serves as Chair of the Hospital Board of H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute. Previously, Ms. Houghton served as Board President for Great Explorations, the Houghton-Wagman Children’s Museum, and she has received numerous awards for community service and leadership. She has three adult children, three grandchildren, and is raising two grandchildren.

Juvenile Welfare Board

Turner

Delquanda is a Program Officer at the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg where she is responsible for managing funded partner and community partnerships with a focus on individuals, nonprofit organizations, collectives, planning bodies, and multi- sectors involved in the broad range of social determinants of health in St. Petersburg, Florida. In addition to her portfolio, she leads the Foundation’s Nonprofit Accelerator Cohort to enhance nonprofits’ capacity, is a Beyond Diversity Courageous Conversations Affiliate Practitioner to continue to talk about race, and has created opportunities to bridge the equity gap. She serves on the grants review committee with the City of St. Petersburg and Allegany Franciscan Ministries. Delquanda previously served as the Community Planning Manager of the Juvenile Welfare Board where she advocated for stronger communities and services for families; built and sustained stakeholder relationships; convened providers and residents to share information, avoid duplication, and leverage resources; and led her team to positive impact and community change initiatives. Prior, she spent several years with JWB funded programs, nonprofit consulting, as well as in the corporate industry. She has an extensive background in nonprofit startup and leadership, community engagement, , strategic connections, and training and organizational development. Delquanda is seeking her PhD in Educational Leadership and Public Policy at the University of South Florida and holds a Master’s degree in Business Administration, is a Take Stock in Children Mentor, Leadership St. Petersburg Alumni Board member, and a proud lifelong resident of St. Petersburg where she resides with her family.

Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg

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Michael Feeney was appointed as the Executive Director of Elementary Education for Pinellas County Schools October 2018. Mr. Feeney began his career with Pinellas County Schools in 1999 as a teacher at Forest Lakes Elementary. In 2008, he was appointed to Assistant Principal at Seminole Elementary. During his time at Seminole, the school was named a National School of Character. Feeney also served as Assistant Principal, and then Principal of Oldsmar Elementary School. Mr. Feeney received an award from the Oldsmar City Council for his exemplary work. Under Principal Feeney’s leadership, Oldsmar Elementary increased their school grade from a C to an A. In 2016, Mr. Feeney was appointed as the principal of High Point Elementary. He collaborated with the staff to transform and lead the school from a D to a B in his first year as measured by the FL-DOE. His educational philosophy is grounded in the beliefs that education is a “family affair”. Partnering with families and communities are what makes a positive impact on our students and our schools. Prior to his career in education, Feeney was enlisted in the U.S. Navy where he met his wife Beth, who is also an educator. They have one daughter, Kayla, who is a sophmore at Sickles High School in Tampa.

Pinellas County Schools

Ray Hensley

Ray Hensley is the Maternal & Child Health Division Director at Florida Department of Health – Pinellas County Health Department. Mr. Hensley has an undergraduate degree in Psychology (Oberlin College), a Master’s degree in Gerontology (USF Tampa) and extensive experience in the social services field, especially in the areas of program planning and quality improvement. Mr. Hensley is a National Peer Reviewer for Healthy Families America (HFA) and a former member of the Prevent Child Abuse America (PCAA) Accreditation Panel and the RPPC (Research Policy Practice Council). Mr. Hensley has provided numerous presentations nationally about home visiting and services to children and families. Additionally, he provides technical assistance for home visiting initiatives within Florida and across the U.S.

Florida Department of Health Pinellas 

Tom Kennedy

Tom Kennedy is a commercial real estate broker with Westport CRE. His client base ranges from small businesses to Fortune 500 companies. As a dedicated single-parent father, his focus in early learning grew from “an enormous respect for children, their abilities and the recognition that having the best support systems for your children is primary. But with over 60% of children relying on outside care, investing in a stimulating and nurturing early childhood is more. It is the fundamental investment in our society, our economy and the success of our nation.”

Westport Group

Paula Keyser

Paula is a Family Resource Specialist in the Early Steps Program at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. Her son, Jeremy, is a 17 year old High School Student with Hydrocephalus, Cerebral Palsy, Epilepsy, Anxiety Disorder and Non-Verbal Learning Disorder. Paula has learned how to advocate and navigate both medical and the early intervention and educational systems to get the help her son needs. She has also learned the importance of collaboration and negotiation as she has traveled on this path.

Early Steps

April Lott

April Lott, LCSW is an eleven-year employee of Directions for Living and serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer. Ms. Lott is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) with over three decades of experience in child welfare and social services. Prior to joining Directions for Living, Ms. Lott served in a variety of service and leadership roles within the human services industry, including serving as the CEO of a large not-for-profit residential program for abused and neglected children, serving as the principal for 5 alternative education schools, and working as protective investigator, probation officer and operating a private practice.

Directions for Living

Chuck Tiernan

Chuck Tiernan has 20 years’ experience in nonprofit education leadership positions, serving both the K-12 and higher education communities. Now in his third year at the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay, Chuck is leading a network of approximately two dozen community partners helping more working age people attain education credentials after high school, as well as building an education partnership around early learning in Southeast Hillsborough County. A graduate of the University of Washington, Chuck holds a Nonprofit Management Certification from UW – Tacoma and is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE). He is a graduate of the Greater Tampa Chamber’s Leadership Tampa Class of 2018.

Community Foundation of Tampa Bay

Project Teams

As part of the formula to achieve this critical work, Thrive By Five has established Project Teams, dedicated to focus areas identified through comprehensive research and strategic planning, and run by passionate volunteers and staff from a range of organizations and businesses.

Business Engagement

Supporting family-friendly workplaces and private sector champions of early education

Children & Caregiver Success

Ensuring equitable access to quality programs while hearing and responding to specific needs of families in Pinellas County

Systems Alignment

Working together to streamline processes for families to access services

Public Awareness

Building public will for prioritizing early childhood as a community value

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Community Partners

Thrive By Five engages hundreds of stakeholders countywide, including local influencers, social and human services providers, education/nonprofit leaders, government officials, and business and civic organizations. Together, we can better pinpoint opportunities for our resource-rich community to work more collaboratively and effectively to meet the needs of Pinellas County's children.