Elementary Staff

Our Elementary Staff oversee programming for our Fiffles aged 6 to 8.

Sunshine Abel, RN, is the proud mother of Sierra and Sailor. She attended her first Friends for Life Conference with her family in 2002, after her daughter Sailor was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was two years old. After attending that conference, Sunshine immediately knew she had found a new family and a new home. It was where kids with type 1 can look around and see other kids just like themselves checking their blood sugars and giving insulin. She then made it her mission to get her whole family involved anyway she could, to give back. Sunshine started volunteering in 2005 and has been working as a nurse and lead HCP in the Friends for Life youth programming since 2006. “To FFL First Timer families: At diagnosis, my husband and I thought what in the world do we do now? How will this disease ever be part of our everyday lives? It turned our lives upside down. Finding CWD and attending that first FFL, we realized this is where our T1D journey begins. It is where we gain knowledge that is golden and given irreplaceable tools to help better manage our lives now that we are living it with type 1. It is where we learn how to better educate those around us in our everyday lives. It’s therapy for ourselves as a parent trying to navigate through the emotions. But most of all, FFL is where we turn to for support when we need it and to give it, to the parent who just can’t get their child’s blood sugar up at 3 am. Having a child with type 1 diabetes makes me feel like I can conquer anything.”

Marisa Fox, RN, BSN, is a nurse in Portland, Oregon and has worked on an inpatient acute care floor for the past seven years. She is the oldest sibling to two sisters, Jessica and Erica, both living with type 1 diabetes. Marisa attended her first conference in 2005 and now loves working with the elementary group.

Hannah Klippel was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of eight and attended her first Friends for Life Conference just four months later. This will be her 16th year participating in Friends for Life conferences, and she is excited for another amazing year with the Elementary team! She is forever grateful for the resources CWD has provided her and her family. Hannah considers her friends made through CWD her family, and she truly can't imagine her life without them!

Kayla Van Eperen has three siblings - two with type 1 - and is mom to David. She has been attending CWD conferences and Friends for Life Orlando since 2003. Kayla graduated in 2017 from Marquette University with a degree in Elementary Education and Communication Studies. She is a 5th-7th grade Math Teacher in Madison, WI. She is very excited to be one of the Elementary Team leaders this year because it is a place where everyone just “gets it.” It truly is a great opportunity to work with the elementary-aged children to continue the culture of not being alone at Friends for Life.

Ashley Dasika is excited to be working in the youth program this year after coming to FFL conferences since the age of four when her younger sister was diagnosed at 11 months old. She didn’t wear an orange bracelet for long, though, because a year later, Ashley was diagnosed too at the age five. FFL is something her family looks forward to every summer. Ashley attends Tufts University in Boston, where she founded a Diabetes Link Chapter in addition to recently studying abroad in Madrid, Spain, where she interned at Madrid’s Diabetes Association. Ashley loves working with kids and is also a camp counselor at diabetes summer camp. Ashley is really excited to be a part of elementary team again this year!

Crystal Diaz

Crystal Diaz was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2019 at age 18 and attended her first Friends for Life Conference in 2021 with the Steward Perry Scholarship for Young Adults. She is from Orange County, California, and graduated from the University of California, Davis with her Bachelor of Science in Global Disease Biology. Crystal will be starting physician assistant school in the fall of 2024. She is so excited to be volunteering again at Friends for Life Orlando.

Timothy Hitchcock has been attending Friends For Life Orlando since its inception. In 2013 he began volunteering in the Elementary Program, and absolutely loves working with the kids. He recently moved to Boulder, CO seeking new opportunities within his field of study, Astrophysics. Tim has really enjoyed his new surroundings in Colorado, and is very grateful for his new life. In his free time, Tim likes to spend time with friends.

Stella Hogan has had type 1 diabetes since 2014 and is a recent high school graduate. She will be attending Southeastern University this fall to pursue a nursing degree, with plans to become a pediatric diabetes educator after college. Stella hopes to one day work in the central Florida area. She attended her first FFL conference less than 30 days after being diagnosed and is very excited to be working with the FFL Elementary group this summer, as she loves working with children. Stella is active with her church and spends time volunteering at the Lake Wales Care Center and Special Olympics.

Kara Hunsche has been living with type 1 diabetes since February 23, 2001. She attended her first Friends for Life Orlando conference in 2003 where she found true Friends for Life. FFL has changed her life in the best ways and has made her more confident in handling her diabetes in her everyday life outside of the conference. Friends for Life to Kara actually means Family for Life because that is what her friends and other staff members from the conference have become to her. She is so excited to work with the FFL elementary kids to help the kids have a great and memorable time just like she does every conference.

Ally Lupu is from Oxford, Michigan. She was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 15 and quickly found her place and passion in the diabetes community. She attended diabetes camp, then was a counselor; she loves the connectedness this special bond creates. Ally recently graduated from Grand Valley State University with a degree in Recreational Therapy, and she is excited to begin building her professional career. This is Ally’s second year volunteering at FFL, and she is thrilled to be with the Elementary team!

Kaileigh O’Connell was diagnosed with diabetes at age three and has been coming to Friends for Life since 2008. This is her second year volunteering as staff and she is so excited! She is 20 years old and works as a certified Infant, Toddler, and Preschool teacher. Kaileigh is attending college at Southern New Hampshire University with a major of Early Childhood Education. She has a sister Meg, and her mom and dad work as with tech staff and with Kiddie Kove as a nurse. She is excited for another year as staff and can’t wait for this year and years to come!

Brianna Peach is 26 years old and is the big sister of Hannah Peach, 22, who has had type 1 diabetes since 2004. She has attended Friends for Life Orlando since 2005 and has never missed a conference. Brianna is a senior at Tennessee Tech University studying to become a physical therapist. She loves all of her friends here at FFL and has really made friends for life.

Kelly Regan is 23 and was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of nine. Her first Friends For Life Conference was in 2012, and she has attended every year since then. She recently graduated from George Mason University with a bachelor's in Criminology in December 2020 and now works full-time for the Department of Justice in Washington, DC. Kelly loves attending the conference and has made many Fiffles over the past 10 years. Kelly is super excited to be back volunteering again this year and to see all of her FFLs!

Kayla Sachs is from Libertyville, Illinois. She graduated last year from Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana, where she received her Bachelor's in Elementary Education. She is currently a 4th-grade elementary teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. Her younger brother Will was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 13 months old. Kayla has participated in Friends for Life Orlando for six years and has created so many memories with her new friends. She is very excited to come back to the Elementary Team this year!

Wendy Smits

Wendy Smits, RN, BSN is the older sister of Caroline who was diagnosed with type 1 in 2001. Her family attended their first Friends for Life conference in 2003 and were involved with Children with Diabetes for many years. Her sister’s journey with diabetes helped to inspire Wendy’s career as a pediatric nurse. Wendy lives in Aiken, SC, where she stays busy working as an RN, an infant and toddler survival swim instructor, and her most important job -- being a mom to Anna Grace, age four.

Bex Sutherland was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1998, at three years old. She attended her first Friends for Life UK Conference in 2010, her first Friends for Life Orlando Conference in 2013, and has attended both ever since. Bex graduated from Aberdeen College in Social Sciences in 2016 and graduates with BSc (Hons) in Psychology with Counselling this October in Glasgow from The Open University. Since 2014 she has been invited to speak to the second-year medical students at Aberdeen University during their lectures on diabetes. Bex is a lecturer at her former college, teaching and supporting students with additional needs. In her spare time, Bex also plays competitive netball and is a swimming teacher. She loves reading, walking her dogs with her fiancé Gary, doting on her nephew, Aaden, and keeping up with her friends wherever they are in the world, with a vanilla latte in hand.

Matthew Van Eperen has two loved ones with type 1 diabetes (Melisssa Geren and Matthew Pawlowski) and has attended several Friends for Life conferences. Matt graduated from Marquette University in 2017 with a bachelor's degree in Political Science and minors in International Affairs and German Studies. He then obtained his Juris Doctorate at Marquette in May 2020. Matt currently works as a contracts specialist at UW-Madison. He is excited to again be with the Elementary Team. Matt is the husband to Kayla Van Eperen and father to David.

Lana Vjestica, born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, was diagnosed with diabetes when she was four years old. She has been attending Friends for Life conferences since 2008, including Marco Island, Philadelphia, and Falls Church! Lana is studying Communications and Health Sciences at the University of Richmond where she is a sophomore. In her free time, she loves shopping and exploring new places. This marks Lana’s second year volunteering at Friends for Life.


Indicates elementary staff member with diabetes

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