Meet the Team

Fernando Higareda

Board Member

Fernando has over 10 years of banking experience, he joined Wintrust Bank as a Vice President Branch Manager of the Pilsen location in 2022. He has worked exclusively in the retail sector of banks where his strength lies in helping small businesses, non-profits, and all community members by meeting their various financial needs. His hands-on approach has proven to be successful in building business relationships during his career in banking. He has been a mentor to others at Wintrust Bank, along with being a member of The Learning Council, and CRA Committee for his financial institution.

Fernando resides in the City of Berwyn with his wife Lorena, and their 4 kids Gio, Cesar, Amaya, and Gaby.

Fernando joined the Gads Hill Center Board in 2023.

Luisiana Melendez

Board Member

Luisiana Meléndez is a clinical professor at Erikson Institute, where she contributes to several initiatives centering on the preparation and professional development of practitioners working with linguistically and culturally diverse children and families. Her current research projects include a case study of an early childhood center implementing a dual language program and an examination of the impact of remote teaching on the subsequent classroom practice of teachers of young children.

Dr. Meléndez is also the co-author of a competency-based credential for early childhood practitioners working with bilingual and multilingual children and families offered in many Illinois institutions of higher education through Gateways to Opportunity, the Illinois Professional Development System.

In addition, Dr. Meléndez has extensive experience working with local and state-wide advocacy groups, and in June of 2022 concluded a three-year term as a member of the Chicago Board of Education. She also currently serves in the Chicago Consortium for School Research Steering Committee and in the Early Childhood Committee of the Illinois Bilingual Advisory.

Luis Gutierrez

Board Member

Luis Gutierrez is currently the First Deputy Superintendent of the Cicero Police Department since 2018. He currently oversees the Patrol, Investigative, Administrative, Specialty, and Community Service Divisions with over 160 personnel. Prior to this assignment, he retired from the Illinois State Police as the Lieutenant Colonel for the Field Support Command with over 24 years of service.

Luis is currently the President of the West Suburban Association Chiefs of Police (WSACOP), Executive Board Member of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Joint Terrorism Task Force, and current member of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police Legislative Committee. He also previously served on the Executive Board for the South Suburban Association Chiefs of Police (SSACOP), the South Suburban Major Crimes Task Force, the FBI Terrorism Liaison Officer Committee, Region Director for the Illinois State Police Command Officers Association, and Board Member for Youth Crossroads. He is also the past President of the Greater Cook County Council of Police Chiefs and the Hispanic Illinois State Law Enforcement Association.

Jennifer Almodovar

Board Member

Jen is a dynamic executive with 20+ years of HR experience and has held senior leadership roles at U.S. Cellular, Grainger, and Aspen Dental. She is currently the EVP of People at Magid Glove and Safety. She has a track record for building strong teams, creating a high-performing culture, and leading organizational transformation.

​​James A. Brett


James (Jim) A. Brett retired as Vice President of Marketing and Business Development for Natural Gas Pipeline Co. of America (NGPL), a joint venture of Kinder Morgan Inc. and Brookfield Infrastructure Partners. He was responsible for commercial activity, including the strategic development and negotiation of natural gas transportation and storage agreements. Jim joined Kinder Morgan in 2007 in the role of Vice President, Business Management for Central Region Gas Pipelines, and had previously worked for NGPL and predecessor companies for 19 years. He also has worked for Peoples Energy Services and Integrys Energy Services over 5 years, directing the sale of retail gas and power services to end users. Jim has a B.S. degree from Northern Illinois University and an MBA from the University of Chicago.

Jim has previously served on the Board of the Chicago Council on Urban Affairs (1994-1998) and as Board Member and President of Midwest Ballet Theatre (2000-2007).

Jorge Leon

Vice President

Jorge is a partner at Michael Best & Friedrich LLP, specializing in ERISA and employee benefits law. Jorge is active with various bar associations and is a member of the Economic Club of Chicago.

Jorge joined the Gads Hill Center Board in 2015.

Mark S. Hersh

Board Member

Mark is a partner at Reed Smith LLP, specializing in insurance recovery. He is an experienced trial lawyer, appellate lawyer and investigator. From 1991 to 2000, Mark was a federal prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Chicago, receiving the Director's Award for Superior Performance as an Assistant U.S. Attorney.

Mark joined the Gads Hill Center Board of Directors in 2012.

​Beverly Wyckoff

Board Member

Beverly is Vice President and Associate Counsel for Global Regulatory Affairs with Dover Corporation. She has served on the Development Committee and the Board Development Committee of Gads Hill Center. She joined Gads Hill as a community volunteer in 1998 and became a member of the Board in 2006.

With her husband, a retired Chicago Public Schools teacher, she is active in education and arts efforts in the Chicago area.

Dan Baker


Daniel Baker is a partner at Chapman and Cutler LLP, specializing in commercial lending transactions. He has been at the firm for his entire career after graduating from the University of Chicago Law School in 1995. He joined Gads Hill Center’s Board of Directors in 2018.

​James P. Brett

Board Member

Jim has been active on the Board of Directors at Gads Hill Center since 1968. He has served as a past Board President. Today, Jim continues to serve on the Gads Hill Center board with equal enthusiasm and commitment.

Jim is a retired Human Services professional.

Dr. Tonya Bibbs

Board Member

Tonya Bibbs, PhD, LCSW is an Associate Professor at Erikson Institute in Chicago where she is a faculty in the child development and social work programs. Her social work practice includes project coordination with Illinois’ African American Family Commission and the Women’s Self-Employment Project’s childcare division. She also served as a program leader in statewide projects. One integrated domestic violence provisions with Temporary Aid to Needy Families, while another developed a statewide system for infant and early childhood mental health consultation. Dr. Bibbs has two areas of research foci. First, she investigates both how policy supports families’ capacity to achieve well-being, and how families and communities advocate for effective policies. Second, Dr. Bibbs studies the development of Black children’s development, particularly as it relates to the racially marginalizing problems they encounter.

​Dr. Bibbs serves as the principle investigator for the Early Development Instrument research project. This project investigates how communities use population data to develop structural approaches to child well-being. She is also conducting a study in which she investigates Illinois stakeholders’ implementation of the Family First Act, with particular attention to issues of racial equity. Dr. Bibbs is the director of Erikson Institute’s Policy Concentrations, wherein she develops and oversees two policy concentrations and a dual-degree program.

Jorge Cazares

Board Member

Jorge grew up in Pilsen and was a "Gads Hill kid," using the gym, library, and woodshop facilities among others. Born and raised in Chicago, he attended St. Ignatius College Prep and Yale University. As the first-ever Latino General Counsel to the Chicago Housing Authority, he oversaw all of the agency’s legal affairs and provided advice and counsel to the CHA’s Board of Commissioners, senior management, and employees. He is a Partner at Tristan & Cervantes.

He has been on the Gads Hill Center Board of Directors since 2001 and has served two terms as Board President.

Debra Clayton

Board Member

Debra Clayton has over 35 years of financial services expertise. She is currently a Senior Vice President at Northern Trust Company. In her current role, Debra is responsible for leading a global team responsible for product management and development of accounting based products supporting large corporate and institutional clients. Debra supports various diversity and inclusion programs.

She holds a B.S. in Finance and M.A in Training from Roosevelt University. Debra has been a member of Gads Hill Center since 2007 and has serves on the Finance Committee.

Amber Crain


Amber Crain is a Learning Business Partner at Slalom Consulting, where she designs, implements, and facilitates a variety of learning and development programs that achieve strategic business goals and operational objectives while growing the capabilities and careers of Slalom team members.

Amber has twenty years of professional experience including leading the learning and talent management division of a marketing technology start-up and progressive HR business partner experience at a Fortune 100 company. Amber holds a BA in Organizational Leadership through Roosevelt University and multiple professional facilitator certifications.

Amber resides in the city’s Tri-Taylor neighborhood with her partner, Will, and their two sighthounds Pony and Fritz. She and Will are beer enthusiasts, having visited every brewery in the state of Illinois.

Juan F. Orta

Board Member

Juan joined the Telemundo Chicago team in October 2011 as the Station Relations and Sales Marketing Manager. Currently, Juan works to maintain a strong relationship with Chicago’s Hispanic community by supporting non-profit organizations and organizing relevant events for the viewers of Telemundo Chicago.

Currently, Juan brings his expertise to AT&T, where he contributes to the company's mission of connecting people and businesses through innovative technologies and services.

David Shier

Board Member

David joined the Board in 2013, yet his involvement with Gads Hill Center began long before. As a Business Group Leader with Walsh Construction, David has supported Gads Hill Center through grants and much needed capital improvements for a number of years.

David is also a dedicated volunteer at the Edgewater Baptist Church.

Leslie Drish

Board Member

Leslie J. Drish is the Director of Diversity and Inclusion for the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago. In this role, Leslie implements and monitors programs that advance the diversity and inclusion journey within the Bank. She is responsible for strategically supporting leadership on D&I, focusing on innovative, engaging and cutting-edge initiatives that drive D&I deeper into the Bank’s organizational culture.
Leslie has over 25 years’ experience developing innovative diversity, volunteer and educational programs with proven ability to drive performance, program improvement, quality initiatives and quantifiable results. She has been recognized for community outreach and development of programs that engage support for organizational mission, vision and strategy. In 2019, Leslie was named as a Chicago Defender Woman of Excellence.
Prior to joining FHLBC, Leslie was the Inclusion and Diversity Manager for Tyson Foods, Manager of Diversity & Inclusion at the YMCA of the USA and the Director of Education at the Chicago Urban League. In addition, she was Educator at Morgan Park High School in Chicago, IL. Leslie earned a Master of Educational Leadership from National-Louis University, a Master of Public Administration from University of Illinois at Chicago and a Bachelor of Arts in Education from DePaul University.

Maty Kiser

Board Member

Maty has over 25 years of experience in the technology industry and has held strategic leadership roles at Verint Systems Inc., Health Care Service Corporation (HCSC), U.S. Cellular Corporation, Kantar Operations North America, CNA Insurance, GMAC and Information Resources, Inc.

Maty has volunteered with many non-profit organizations over the years, including serving on the Hispanic Alliance for Career Enhancement’s (HACE) Board of Directors. She joined Gads Hill Center’s Board of Directors in 2022.

Maty holds a bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering from Marquette University in Milwaukee. She lives downtown Chicago with her husband, Tom. ​She and Tom enjoy everything the city has to offer.



Daniel Ackerman is an executive operations officer in the administration and non-profit field. His strengths lie in his ability to multitask, manage multiple departments and use his experience to set appropriate paths and expectations for successful programming and project implementation. Daniel is highly analytical and results-oriented. He uses metrics, strategic planning, and goal setting to meet benchmarks and key objectives. Daniel received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Iowa.


Associate Director of Informational Technology


Chief Financial Officer

With more than 15 years experience in financial non-profit management, Mr. De La Torre currently is Gads Hills Center's Chief Financial Officer. Mr. De La Torre joined Gads Hill Center in 1999 as an accounting assistant. During the last eight years, Mr. De La Torre has held positions with increasing accounting and financial responsibilities. In addition, he has provided training to other nonprofit organizations on topics such as financial management, internal control, cost savings, budgeting and financial reporting. Mr. De La Torre received his B.A. in Accounting from the University of Guadalajara.


Chief Executive Officer

Maricela Garcia is the Chief Executive Officer of Gads Hill Center, a community-based organization founded in 1898 that creates opportunities for children and their families to build a better life through education, access to resources, and community engagement. Ms. Garcia has more than 20 years of experience in nonprofit management leading organizations through start-up, turnaround, and expansion.

Ms. Garcia is the former Executive Director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and founding Executive Director of the Latino Policy Forum. Prior to Gads Hill Center, she was the Director of Capacity Building and Juvenile Justice Policy at UnidosUS, formerly the National Council of La Raza.

Ms. Garcia came to the United States in the early 1980s as a result of the civil war in Guatemala. After her arrival in the U.S., she founded Casa Guatemala to assist newly arriving refugees and later co-founded Women for Guatemala, an organization dedicated to building solidarity among women in the U.S. with women’s organizations in Guatemala fighting to uphold human rights.

Maricela has also served on various boards and councils including the National Immigration Forum, the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Northwestern University Human Rights Center, the Chicago Community Renewal Society, Illinois Partners for Human Services, and Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.

Ms. Garcia holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Public Administration from Northeastern University and a Master of Social Work degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago. In addition, she was a policy fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. She has also completed leadership programs at Northwestern University, the Kellogg School of Management, and at Harvard Business School.

Ms. Garcia has received several fellowships and awards including the Chicago Community Trust Senior Leader Fellowship, National Hispana Leadership Institute Fellowship, the Leadership Greater Chicago Fellowship, Latinos of the Southwest Excellence in Leadership Award, and Casa Guatemala Human Rights Award. In 2001, Chicago Woman Magazine nominated Ms. Garcia as one of the 100 most prominent leaders making a difference in the quality of life of Chicagoans. That same year, she received the Bannerman Fellowship, which allowed her to study the correlation between economic development and migration in Mexico, Central America, and the United States. She is currently a member of The Chicago Network, an organization for women in senior level leadership positions in business, government, nonprofits, and academia.

Ms. Garcia has two children who are the inspiration of her life, Daniella and Camilo.


Chief Program Officer

Krystal Ross, Chief Program Officer, has 6 years of program director experience, and 12 years experience in the field of Early Childhood Education. Over her tenure, she has served in federally funded programs such as Early Intervention, Head Start and Early Head Start. Ms. Ross holds a B.A in Early Childhood Education, M.S.E.d in Curriculum and Instruction, and is a Certified Class Observer. In addition, she serves on education council committees for Malcolm X College.