Stephanie Orlando, Executive Director
Building upon her personal experience of having received children’s mental health, special education, and residential services, Ms. Orlando began her work with youth peer advocacy in 1998 in Buffalo New York. In the years since, Ms. Orlando has become a nationally recognized advocate for youth with disabilities. Her work is dedicated to promoting positive change within child-serving systems, increasing the availability of peer support for young people and teaching youth how to advocate for their own needs and rights on all levels of service. She has received numerous awards for her work, including the Diana Vietz Award in 2008 from the National Council on Independent Living and mpower Award in 2006 from the National Mental Health Association. Although Ms. Orlando dropped out of high-school on her 16th birthday, she received her high-school equivalency diploma in 1999, a year before her graduating class. She then went on to graduate magna cum laude from the University at Buffalo in 2005 with a Bachelor of Arts. In 2005, Ms. Orlando also started working for Families Together in New York State as the Statewide Youth Coordinator. By 2007, she and a few other young leaders had founded the YOUTH POWER! network. In 2012, Ms. Orlando was appointed by President Obama and confirmed by the US Senate to the National Council on Disability for a term, which expired in November 2014. During her term she served on the Executive Committee and as the Chairperson of the Governance and Planning Committee.
Kristina Hebner-Akbar, Assistant Director
Pronoun: Female or Neutral (She/Her/They/Them)
Kristina Hebner-Akbar is a passionate advocate with many years of experience providing services to youth, young adults, and adults within the Mental Health System. Her passion stems from her own experiences and struggles with being labeled with a mental health diagnosis and cross-systems involvement as a young adult. She has worked in multiple roles of direct service ranging from Youth Advocate to Supported Education Counselor. Kristina has co-authored an encyclopedia article on Youth Advocacy and has been interviewed by several news outlets in NYC regarding her anti-stigma work. She also received the mPower Award in 2004 from the National Mental Health Association for her work with youth and young adults in NYC at the Mental Health Association of New York City, Inc. Kristina is currently pursuing a degree in Computer Information Sciences.
Elijah Fagan-Solis, AMPLIFY-NY Coordinator
Elijah Fagan-Solis, a God-fearing Capital Region native, is a highly motivated, young professional with firsthand, lived experienced as a person with a disability. At age 14, Elijah was diagnosed with Chronic Kidney Failure and labeled disabled. Despite the label placed on him, Elijah was determined not to let a disability control his life or future; through all the trials and tribulations he faced with his health, Elijah graduated with a 4.0 GPA from Hudson Valley Community College, and Magna Cum Laude from the Sage College of Albany. While at HVCC, Elijah was honored by the Historical Society of the Courts of the State of New York for winning the David A. Garfinkel Essay Competition and had his essay published in Judicial Notice, as well as participated in a documentary about his involvement with the contest. Elijah has worked with the NYS Assembly, is a member of two national honor societies, and has received awards for involvement in his community, and for his belief in the ability of people to change, grow, and make a contribution to the world. Elijah participates in charity events and fundraisers such as the National Kidney Foundations Kidney Walk and the Children’s Miracle Network Hospital’s Walk in the Park. Elijah also volunteers his time to do community service and is highly active with his church where he serves as a Deacon, the administrative assistant, and heads the youth ministry among other responsibilities.
Brianna Valesey, Social Marketing and Event Coordinator
Brianna Valesey is a hardworking young professional with experience in mental health services as a young person and a spinal injury at the age of 16 that labeled her as disabled. She has served as a mentor for the Ready to Achieve Mentoring Program as well as a student advocate with Sage College of Albany’s Alliance for Sexual Assault Prevention. After graduating in 2014 with a Bachelor of Science, she began working as YOUTH POWER!’s Youth Engagement Consultant and works hard to spread messages of hope and resiliency to those around her.
Melanie Hecker, Systems Advocate
Melanie Hecker is a young person with experiences in the mental health, developmental disability, and special education systems. She enjoys giving back to her community through volunteer work, motivational speaking and advocating for her peers. Having been involved in state systems from an early age, Melanie loves to share her experiences and use them to improve the system. Melanie is the recipient of the 2010 Lieutenant John Finn Community Service Award from Albany County. She also received an Honorable Mention in the 2015 David A. Garkfinkel Essay Competition and is a Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities inductee. Melanie recently graduated from Hudson Valley Community College with an Associate’s Degree in Human Services and is currently attending University at Albany for Public Policy and Management. Melanie is a lifelong resident of the Capital District.
Domonica Jeffress, Fostering Advocacy Change and Empowerment (FACE) Coordinator
Domonica Jeffress has a passion for eliminating the labeling of young people and improving the welfare system. Domonica spent most of her life in foster care, where she faced many adversities that helped her see the importance and necessity of youth voice in all child serving systems. While in foster care Domonica was involved in projects that coupled her personal experience with the lack of choice and voice to draw attention to why youth voice and participation in their service plans was a practice that needed to become widespread. Two of these projects were videos headed by the New York State Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children. One featured young people in foster care regarding their court proceeding and the other was a video on leaving foster care and the importance of having an active role in the aging out process. Domonica has touched many systems and advocates for a better tomorrow for all youth. Domonica is a graduate of the College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York where she received her Bachelor’s degree in Sociology with a minor Public Health.
Alexander Frisina, Regional Youth Partner
Alexander Frisina is a hardworking and dedicated young professional that was labeled with Special Education needs at an early age. Adopted at a young age by a family located in Eastern Long Island, Alex is the youngest of four siblings, and the only adopted member of his family. Facing issues of self-identity Alex struggled with depression. Throughout the decision-making process of his treatment, he felt voiceless and was made to believe he had no choices. This feeling pushed Alex to seek alternative methods of expression; which lead him down the road of creative writing. Alex used his writing to not only express himself but also escape from the feeling of being powerless and unheard. Since graduating from King’s College located in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania Alex has been seeking a position that uses his creative background to help make a difference. Learning about the work YOUTH POWER! has done and the goals they are working towards Alex realized his past experience could be used to help others dealing with similar situations. Pulling from past experiences and gaining knowledge every day Alex hopes to push for change and spread the work of YOUTH POWER!
Brennan Williams, Hudson River Regional Youth Partner
Brennan Williams is a passionate activist and member of the mental health, disability, and young adult communities. His personal experiences and work throughout the past 11 years have given him a unique glimpse into some of the many challenges of living as someone who is “labeled.” Brennan’s experiences within these systems have heavily intersected with being transgender. Brennan has mentored homeless and at-risk youth, participated in college disability activist groups, worked to help pass human rights laws for the transgender community, and organized panels and provided training to various community providers. He has also worked with a Youth Court program to educate and encourage youth and young adults to know their rights and how to advocate for them. Brennan brings with him several years of professional work with the disability community, including youth and young adult specific programs. Brennan’s experiences and work have been the driving forces behind his desire to educate, advocate, organize, and push for our communities to value input from all people.
Azaria Wittekind, Western Regional Youth Partner
Azaria has a history of working with and for youth and young adults. This stems from the care and support she received while growing up in the foster care system. Azaria was in and out of foster care since the age of 13 and has multiple mental health diagnoses. Azaria has personally experienced the power of love, support, and caring from others who helped her find her voice, drive, and have supported her personal successes. Azaria turned her passion into supporting others to find their voices. Prior to starting this position, she has worked directly with youth to support them in finding their voice at home and in school as a Youth Mentor, Youth Ambassador, and in residential care as a Youth Care Professional. Azaria earned her Bachelors in Social Work from SUNY Brockport in 2013 after aging out of foster care at 21 while studying abroad in Vietnam.
Mica Gonzalez, Central Regional Youth Partner
Pronoun: Female or Neutral (She/Her/ They/Them)
Mica comes to YOUTH POWER! with much experience working with youth and young adults. She brings knowledge and experience of working with diverse populations, youth-guided care, and youth-guided implementation. Her passion lies in working with youth to find their voice. As a youth, she felt largely silenced and had a difficult time navigating through cross systems. Growing up in a multicultural household, struggling to maintain her mental health was challenging. At a young age she was given a few different labels and through the years those only continued to change. In addition to those struggles, Mica was diagnosed with epilepsy in the 7th grade. Trying to maintain her seizure disorder and mental health posed many challenges. Shortly after this, she came out to her family and friends. The lack of representation and acceptance only further perpetuated her mental health and resulted in many psychiatric hospitalizations. With these struggles in mind, Mica attended an alternative school from grades 10th to 12th where she graduated high school. She graduated Onondaga Community College in 2013 with her Associates in Human Services with a specialization in Social Work. Today, she attends Syracuse University where she is working to get her Bachelors in Social Work. Mica plans on continuing her education to get her Master’s degree in Social Work. When she is not working hard to amplify youth voices, she is enjoying nature, traveling, crafting and playing with her three pugs!