Elementary Team

Our Elementary Team oversees 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.

Justin Abel

Justin Abel attended his first Friends For Life conference in 2002, six months after his daughter Sailor was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was two years old. Once Justin, his wife and two daughters started attending more FFL conferences, he knew he wanted to get more involved by volunteering and giving back. Justin has been volunteering at FFL conferences every year since 2005, in many different age groups.

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.

Sophia Helme was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was 12 years old. This will be her 12th Friends for Life Conference! After going through Tween and Teen program and attending sessions for six years, she decided it was finally time to become part of the volunteer team. Sophia is currently a Pre-K teacher and absolutely adores all of the children with whom she works. In addition to teaching, in August she will be starting nursing school. Sophia is absolutely thrilled to get involved with the children of CWD and can't wait to see the positive impact she and her Diabetic Alert Dog, Duffy, can make in their lives.

Kerri Ann Jones is pursuing nursing in college. She was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of seven in 2012. Kerri Ann and her family attended their first Friends for Life conference in 2013, where she and her family made lifelong friends. In the future, Kerri Ann wants to be a pediatric, labor and delivery, or international travel nurse, and become a Certified Diabetes Educator. She can't thank CWD enough for giving her this opportunity to work with the kiddos. FFL helped Kerri Ann realize that there are people just like her of all ages and can't wait to help the younger kids make memories that they will remember forever!

Monica Lanning is a recent graduate from the Stanford University Physician Assistant program and is hoping to have her first clinical job by the time she’s at FFL this year! Before her studies, Monica worked as a clinical research coordinator at Stanford focused on improving quality of life in people with type 1 diabetes. She has had diabetes since she was two years old and has been to every single Friends for Life Orlando conference as well as many regionals. Monica loves to do crafts, play board games, and travel. She is excited to re-connect with her fiffles and continue learning from the FFL family!

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 recently graduated from Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana, where she received her Bachelor's in Elementary Education with a minor in reading. Her younger brother Will was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 13 months old. Kayla has participated in Friends for Life Orlando for five 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.

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 Team member with diabetes