Our Youth Staff oversee the programming for our four youth groups: Kiddie Kove (0-5), Elementary (6-8), Tween (9-12), and Teen (13-17), as well as supporting our Siblings Program for our youth who have brothers or sisters (or parents) with T1D.
Teen Program Staff
Aaron Cordell is a social studies teacher living in Philadelphia, PA with his girlfriend, Hannah, and their dog, Ruby. He teaches at an alternative high school that services disadvantaged and at-risk youth from North Philadelphia. In his spare time, Aaron enjoys hiking, biking, traveling, and being outdoors. Aaron was introduced to Friends for Life through his girlfriend, Hannah, who was diagnosed with type 1 at age three, and has been attending/volunteering at the conference most of her life. He is very excited to be working with the Teen Staff again this year!
Kevin Covais is an actor, singer, and diabetes advocate. He is most recognized as a Top 12 Finalist on the fifth season of “American Idol,” which aired in 2006. On the show, Kevin was mentored by several award-winning recording artists including Stevie Wonder and Barry Manilow, and he placed 11th overall. Since his “Idol” days, Kevin has transitioned into acting. His credits include a lead role in the 2008 MGM comedy, College, a supporting role in the family film, Touchback, starring Kurt Russell, as well as a role in 2014’s summer blockbuster, Transformers: Age of Extinction. Kevin has also made several television appearances, including a guest star credit on the FOX show, “Raising Hope.” Disney Channel fans know Kevin best as Victor Deleseur on the hit show, “Good Luck Charlie.” Kevin was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 11 and has worked with the Diabetes Research Institute for many years. He is thrilled to be a part of Friends for Life again after making his first FFL appearance in 2006.
Jess Forster, MSW, RSW, is a social worker who is passionate about connecting with children and families living and thriving with type 1 diabetes. For the past 11 years, Jess has worked at the Markham Stouffville Hospital Pediatric Diabetes Clinic in Markham Ontario Canada, and she is absolutely thrilled to be a part of the Friends For Life conference in Orlando.
Brian Grant, BSN, RN, CDCES, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2003. He loves working with people who have diabetes, and is looking forward to serving as Teen Leader at the Friends for Life Orlando conference. He currently resides in Mechanicsburg, PA and works for Dexcom.
Rayhan Lal, MD, MPH, PhD, is pediatric and adult endocrine faculty at Stanford. Rayhan grew up in the California bay area and always wanted to be an engineer. He has had type 1 diabetes for over 30 years. He studied electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley. His two younger sisters were enrolled in DPT-1, were found to be antibody positive, and developed type 1 diabetes. In an effort to help all his brothers and sisters with diabetes, Rayhan decided to switch career paths and pursue clinical medicine at the University of California, Davis. Rayhan could not decide whether to take care of children or adults with diabetes and so did both. He completed a four year residency in internal medicine and pediatrics at the University of Southern California, working with the underserved at Los Angeles County Hospital. Rayhan then completed an adult and pediatric endocrine fellowship at Stanford. As an engineer and physician-scientist with diabetes, his primary research interest is the design, development, and testing of new diabetes technology and therapies with his mentor, Dr. Bruce Buckingham. Rayhan collaborates with many members of the Stanford Diabetes Research Center, industry and the open source diabetes community in an effort to bypass the biological, technological and human factor limitations of existing devices.
Hannah Opdenaker was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes in February of 1999 and has been attending the Children With Diabetes Conferences since 2001. She is the Associate Director for a non-profit theater in Philadelphia, where she acts as a grant writer, program director, and occasional performer. Hannah is excited to serve as a Teen Leader at the Friends for Life conferences.
Ernie Prado serves as the Super Guppy Project Engineer in the Aircraft Operations Division at NASA's Johnson Space Center. In this role, he is responsible for maintaining airworthiness of the Guppy, integrating payloads, upgrading systems, assisting Maintenance, supporting sustaining engineering and ensuring mission success. In 2019, the Super Guppy airlifted the Artemis spacecraft between NASA facilities supporting America’s mission to Mars. Previously he worked at the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility (SVMF) where astronauts train prior to spaceflight. At the SVMF, he led projects to create, maintain, and upgrade full-size International Space Station trainers and mockups that astronauts use to prepare for their missions. In addition to his work at NASA, he is involved in manufacturing large-scale 3D Printers. Ernie holds Bachelor of Science degrees in Mechanical Engineering & Aeronautical Sciences and Engineering from UC Davis. He was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at the age of 15 and has been on an insulin pump since 2011. While wearing an insulin pump and CGM, Ernie has achieved 8Gs in a centrifuge during an Aeromedicine study. In his free time, Ernie enjoys snowboarding, SCUBA diving, crossFit, building Legos, and tinkering.
Tween Program Staff
Melissa Geren was diagnosed with diabetes in 1995. She went to her first Friends for Life Orlando Conference in 2003 and has been attending Friends for Life conferences ever since. Melissa is mom to Maddax (born December 2021), wife to Zach and has three siblings, Sarah, Kayla, and Matthew (diagnosed at age two). Melissa works in marketing in Chicago and loves the Windy City. Aside from working with Tweens at Friends for Life Conferences each year, Melissa is currently a board member for Children with Diabetes.
Zach Geren is husband to Melissa Geren, diagnosed at age four. Zach attended his first conference in 2015 and has enjoyed every FFL since. Each conference, Zach looks forward to spending time with the friends he's made, as well as making new ones. Zach graduated from Marquette University Law School and works as an attorney in Chicago. Zach loves to watch and play almost every sport, but especially enjoys playing basketball, tennis, football, and frisbee.
Tina Ghosn has three children with diabetes. Her daughter is thriving in her second year away at college. Her oldest son is in the last stretch of his senior year and will begin his college experience fall of 2020. Her youngest child, the one whose diagnosis at age two introduced the Ghosn family to life with diabetes, will soon be the only child at home certainly loving being on the receiving end of ALL her attention. Friends For Life 2020 will be her ninth Orlando conference since her youngest son was diagnosed in 2007. Tina says, “Friends For Life is more than learning about new technology or the most recent cure research, it’s more than meeting people with diabetes who summit mountains, race cars, win extreme challenge courses, become pro-athletes, or write and perform music. Friends For Life is about the powerful feeling in your chest as you hear the words ‘Us Too,’ while you chat with strangers who are just like you and meet kids who are just like yours; it's in those moments the universe feels smaller and more manageable. Plus all the food is carb counted for you!”
Russ Johnston has three people near and dear to him that have type 1, and has been coming to CWD and Friends for Life Conferences since 2015. Russ graduated from Marquette University in 2015 from the School of Education and is currently a high school math teacher in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin. Russ is very excited to be on staff again and could not be more ready to help make the Friends for Life conference a great experience for everyone. For him, the best part of Friends for Life is helping teens connect to other teens across the country with whom they can relate.
Sarah Johnston has three siblings, two with type 1, and all four siblings are staff at Friends For Life! Sarah graduated from Marquette University with a degree in Elementary Education as well as Psychology and now teaches middle school STEM in Milwaukee, WI. Spending a week at Friends for Life each summer is a huge part of her family’s life. Since the age of 10, Sarah spends a week where everyone understands diabetes and all that comes with type 1. Friends for Life is filled with amazing people who bring out the best in one another. Sarah is so excited to work with the Friends for Life tweens and continue to be a part of the staff this year!
Sarah Melcher was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was nine years old. She volunteered at her first FFL conference in 2009 and led the Tween Program at FFL Canada in 2018. She will be volunteering in Orlando again this year as she enjoys the educational and fun environment that is provided for the youth at CWD conferences. Sarah is a secondary school teacher, specializing in physical education. She has attended and worked at a diabetes summer camp in Ontario where she met many of her friends with diabetes.
Jesse Nagel, RN, CDCES, age 30, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when he was 9 1/2 years old. He graduated from D’Youville College Nursing School and currently works at Cohen's Children's Medical Center as a Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist. Jesse states that he pursued a career in nursing due to the wonderful doctors, nurses and researchers he met at each FFL over the years. CWD is his home and he has been quoted saying “This is the happiest week of my life every year!” He has attended every FFL Orlando since 2003 as part of the elementary, tween, and teen groups, and is excited to work with the Tweens this year!
Matthew Pawlowski was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2002. He attends the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay, majoring in Business Administration with emphases in Supply Chain Management and Entrepreneurship. Matthew has been coming to Friends for Life since 2003 and is proud that he has gone through the entire FFL education program. He has three sisters: Melissa (dx’d 2/95), Sarah, and Kayla, who are all on FFL staff.
Jessica Plotts is 24 years old, a graduate of the University of Tennessee and was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of five. She has been coming to Friends for Life conferences since 2000 and this will be her sixth year on staff. CWD is an amazing community of people and everyone is a great resource to have throughout the year. The friends made at CWD conferences really are her friends for life.
Lizzie Lackey was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was 19 and attended her first CWD conference four months later. She came away filled with so much hope and a sense of belonging that she has only missed 1 conference in the past 11 years. Friends for Life is her absolute favorite week of the year! The other 51 weeks of the year, Lizzie is a Vision Therapist in Houston, TX. She loves working with kids of all ages and can't wait to be back at FFL in person!
Erica Smith was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in January 2004. Erica attended her first Friends for Life conference in 2004 with her family and has only missed one conference since, which she thoroughly regrets. She graduated from Texas A&M University with a Health Education degree, got married last summer, and moved from Texas to Des Moines, IA. She says that CWD conferences are the best part of her year and she is very grateful for all the friends she has made at Friends for Life. Erica is extremely excited to work with the tweens and have the opportunity to be on staff once again.
Elementary Program Staff
Sailor Abel was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of two. Sailor attended her first Friends for Life conference in 2002 at the age of three. She has worked her way through all of the age groups learning and absorbing all the information she can about type 1 diabetes. Now she is preparing to enter her third year of college using all the resources and information she has gained from CWD. Sailor is so grateful for everything she has experienced growing up through CWD. She has made the very best of friends who have become her family through CWD.
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.”
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.
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 14th 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 Pawlowski has three siblings - two with type 1 - and 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 currently a Middle School teacher in Milwaukee, WI. She is very excited to be part of the CWD Youth Program staff 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.
Matthew Van Eperen has two loved ones with Type 1 (Melisssa Geren and Matthew Pawlowski) and has attended several FFL 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.
Kiddie Kove Program Staff
Parker Grand is excited to be on the Friends for Life staff as CWD has given him so much support and friendship over the years. Parker has attended every Friends for Life conference since his diagnosis at the age of three in 2002. Parker lives in California where he attends college full-time. He is employed by the California State Parks where he coordinates youth programs, leads guided tours and develops new programs to teach children an appreciation for the history and ecology of the parks. Parker loves working with children of all ages. In his free time, you can find him biking, golfing, and volunteering.
Mary Babin, RN, BSN, CDCES, has served as the childcare coordinator since the very first CWD conference. Mary leads a team of certified diabetes educators providing care and fun in a safe environment for kids under age five with and without diabetes. Providing this service alleviates the concerns of many parents of kids with diabetes – allowing them to attend the sessions with peace of mind knowing that their children are cared for by skilled professionals. This supports Mary's belief that education is the key to successful diabetes management. Mary has devoted her career to the world of medicine. As a graduate of Eastern University and Presbyterian School of Nursing, Mary currently works as a pediatric endocrine specialty nurse and has been a CDE over 25 years! This busy mom and devoted professional has been involved with CWD since 2001. You can spot her at the conferences-she's the one with the trail of kids behind her!
Chris Freund, BSN, RN, attended her first Friends for Life Conference after her daughter Molly was diagnosed with diabetes in March 2005 at the age of six. She has been a pediatric emergency department nurse for 15+ years and loves working with kids. She is also mom to Andrew, Elizabeth and Benjamin who have grown up with CWD.
Shelley Grand, mom to Parker, diagnosed in 2002, resides in Southern California. Shelley and her family have been attending Friends for Life Orlando conferences since 2003, and they attribute Parker’s success in managing his type 1 to the knowledge, support and friendship that they have received over the years from attending the FFL conferences. Shelley has been a preschool teacher/director for the past 30 years. She states, “We look forward to attending FFL every year and enjoy being able to give back to a community that has given so much to our family.”
Indicates youth staff member with diabetes