Our extraordinary professional staff are dedicated to helping children and teenagers achieve their full potential, despite a parent’s illness. Meet our staff and Board of Directors who work together to support families on their medical journey.
Alex Gabbi, MBA
Alex Gabbi is a devoted father to his three wonderful kids, Nico, Maya and Luca. After his wife died of cancer, he gave up a successful career in business to focus on making a difference for others in the community in as many ways as possible. This included teaching at the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin and supporting Wonders & Worries. His career encompasses more than 25 years of experience in senior leadership positions with small and Fortune 500 companies in the high-tech, consulting, international business and software arenas. Alex is an avid traveler and enjoys games of strategy. He intends for his children to visit 40 countries and 40 states before they graduate high school. Read more about his story.
512-329-5757, Ext. 101
Corinne Barnickel, MA, MS, CCLS, LMFT-A
Child Life Specialist
Corinne Barnickel moved to Texas to become a program facilitator at a camp for children with special needs. During camp, she heard of Wonders & Worries and signed up to be a volunteer. After completing her child life internship at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital, she excitedly accepted a position at Wonders & Worries. Corinne is now a full-time child life specialist. She provides therapeutic support for individuals and groups of children coping with a parent’s illness. She is also a facilitator of the monthly teen group which provides peer support to adolescents dealing the loss or illness of a parent. She is passionate about her work and loves that this community setting allows her to have relationships with the families she serves.
Corinne graduated from Louisiana Tech University with a Bachelor’s in Family and Child Studies, concentrating in Child Life. She received her graduate degree from Louisiana Tech in Family and Consumer Sciences with a concentration in Family and Child Development. Her graduate work focused on the influence of parental cancer on school-children and their families. Corinne decided to continue her education further and attended St. Edwards University to complete a Master of Arts in Counseling. Gaining a marriage and family therapy degree allows Corinne to continue her passion for making sure families build resiliency in the midst of grief and loss. She is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate in part time private practice.
512-329-5757, Ext. 113
Donna Bueche, MA
Donna Bueche is a fundraising professional with 13 years of experience working with nonprofit organizations and public universities. For the last 10 years, Donna worked as a Grant Manger at Meals on Wheels Central Texas. Before joining Meals on Wheels Central Texas, she worked in the Resource Development office at the McCombs School of Business at UT Austin. There, she assisted the Director of Corporate Relations with proposals, presentations, donor research and events. Donna holds a B.A. in English from the University of Texas at Austin and a M.A. in English from the University of Arizona. She is a member of the Grants Professional Association.
Donna is a PTA member at her daughter’s elementary school in Austin. She has also volunteered for Open Door Preschool, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and the Paramount Theater. When she is not fundraising or spending time with her husband and daughter, Donna can be found at the YMCA, most likely in a spin class.
512-329-5757, Ext. 119
Meredith Cooper, MA, CCLS, LPC
Co-Founder & Child Life Specialist
Meredith Cooper is the co-Founder of Wonders & Worries, a nonprofit that provides professional support for children and teenagers throughout a parent’s illness. Following 15 years of success, Meredith shifted from executive director to a founder role in 2017, where she continues providing strategic direction for Wonders & Worries’ national growth.
Meredith has a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in Child Development. She is a certified Child Life Specialist (CCLS) and a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) who has been involved with children’s healthcare in the Austin community for more than 25 years, including being the first pediatric oncology child life specialist for Austin. Meredith received the Helping Hand Home’s Champion for Children Award in 2010, and the Girl Scout Woman of Distinction Award in 2013. Meredith is married with one son, two daughters and a growing number of grandchildren.
512-329-5757, Ext. 201
Paula Ferreira is currently a senior at the University of Texas at Austin pursuing Marketing at the McCombs School of Business. She has previous experience in project marketing from her involvement with a start-up company in Austin. In the future, she wants to continue working with non-profits in the area of sustainability and conservation.
In her free time, Paula loves to travel back home and visit her family in Brazil, go hiking around the trails in Austin, and spend time at the beach.
Cindy Fitchpatrick, MEd, CCLS
Bilingual Child Life Specialist
Cindy joins Wonders & Worries with more than 28 years of experience, having served in numerous hospitals supporting the psychosocial needs of pediatric patients and their families. She is bilingual in English and Spanish and a passionate champion for Spanish-speaking communities. Cindy has her bachelor of science in Early Childhood and Family Relationships, and a Master of education in Special Education, both from the University of Texas. She is a certified child life specialist (CCLS) and recently started teaching an Introduction to Child Life course at UT.
Cindy volunteers with Operation Smile on international medical missions and serves on the Standish Foundation advisory board. Cindy has been married 25 years and enjoys spending time on the lake and running.
512-329-5757, Ext. 319
Kim Fryar, MS, MEd, CCLS, NCC
Program Director, Child Life Specialist
Kim has been a child life specialist for more than 20 years. She started her career at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, and worked with seriously ill children and their families for nine years. Kim moved to Austin and joined the Wonders & Worries team in 2002. Kim now serves as program director, a role that provides her the privilege of providing initial support to newly referred families, supervising child life staff and overseeing client services. Kim holds a bachelor’s degree in Family Relations and Child Development and Masters’ degrees in both Human Development and Family Studies and Counseling – with a play therapy emphasis. She is a Certified Child Life Specialist (CCLS) and National Certified Counselor (NCC).
Kim is married to her high school sweetheart, who proposed underwater while they were scuba diving. They have a teenage daughter, teenage son, two dogs and a rabbit. Kim is adventurous and loves the outdoors. She is a certified scuba diver, avid hiker, snow skier, water skier and has jumped out of a plane. She also enjoys relaxing with a good book.
512-329-5757, Ext. 207
Child Life Specialist
Francine has 7 years of experience as a Certified Child Life Specialist (CCLS), currently working at Children’s Hospital of San Antonio. Francine began her Child Life career as a child life assistant in 2006, has Bachelor’s degree in Education and is currently pursuing a master of science degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at the University of San Antonio.
Francine is from San Antonio, TX and on her spare time she enjoys reading, cooking, and re-watching the office. She is a homebody at heart, but also enjoys a good hike, game nights and her goal is to try every pizza joint in San Antonio.
Reagan is currently a second-year master’s student studying Advertising at UT Austin. She has a background in advertising, graphic design and journalism, with a previous internship at a nonprofit news organization in Austin. After graduation, she hopes to work with brands and organizations to form creative and engaging messaging to push their cause forward.
In her free time, Reagan loves to travel, tackle DIY & design projects, and cuddle her Corgi puppy, Finn.
Bilingual Child Life Specialist
Aleida has 12 years of experience as a certified child life specialist (CCLS), currently working at Children’s Hospital of San Antonio. Aleida has a Bachelor’s degree in Human Development and Family Studies from the University of Houston. She will be serving our Spanish-Speaking families in San Antonio by doing intakes and parent consultations as needed.
In addition to Aleida’s child life specialist certification, she is a Certified Passenger Safety Technician, and a Child Life Volunteer Coordinator. Aleida and her fiancé, Ernest, are big Star Wars fans and enjoy going to the movies.
Nicole Halder, MA
Outreach & Development Director
Nicole Halder is passionate about helping organizations create outstanding services for children in challenging environments. Nicole’s focus is developing partnerships to help Wonders & Worries expand. After completing her Bachelor of Science in Finance and International Operations from Georgetown University, she earned her Master’s in Elementary Education from Columbia University. Nicole has extensive experience in teaching, and her work in teacher and curriculum development effected major advances in educational outcomes at schools in New York City and Central Texas.
She previously served as President of the Board of Directors of Wonders & Worries and is a former board member of the Lake Travis Education Foundation. Her professional and board work consistently demonstrate outstanding leadership skills and successful outcomes. She enjoys cooking, “playing” in her garden, traveling and raising her three elementary school-age children with her husband.
512-329-5757, Ext. 120
Melissa Hicks, MS, CCLS, LCMCH, RPT-S
Director, Registered Wonders & Worries Provider (RWWP) Program, Co-Founder
Melissa has been a child life specialist for over 30 years with her primary area of clinical expertise in the oncology arena. Prior to co-founding Wonders & Worries, she worked at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore, Maryland and the AFLAC Cancer Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. In addition to hospital-based practice, Melissa has also worked in private practice/consulting as well as being a psychosocial program director for Camp Sunshine in Atlanta, GA and a school counselor. Melissa has also served on several non-profit Board of Directors. In addition to chairing many committees and a task force, Melissa has been the President of the Association for Child Life Professionals (ACLP), a Director on the ACLP Board, and the Child Life Certification Chairperson. She was honored to receive the Child Life Council Distinguished Service Award in 2010.
Melissa earned a BS in Individual and Family Studies from the University of Delaware and a MS in Counseling from Georgia State University. She was awarded the Presidential Citation for Outstanding Achievement (2001) and the Outstanding Alumni Award for the College of Human Services, Education and Public Policy (2002) at the University of Delaware.
She has published in journals and textbooks on the topics of children impacted by cancer, coping with chronic illness in children and child life practice in alternate settings. Melissa has presented on these topics at the university level, professional conferences, to medical staff and to parents.
Melissa is a certified child life specialist, a licensed clinical mental health counselor and a registered play therapist & supervisor. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with her husband and teenage daughter. In her free time, she enjoys watching her daughter ride horses and spending time on Cape Cod.
Ali Houshmand, MA, LPC, LMFT
Child Life Staff
Ali Houshmand was born in Teheran, Iran, and grew up in Europe. He studied in Belgium and finished his university studies in Bordeaux, France. In 1991, he moved to the United States and went back to college in San Francisco, California. Ali worked for 18 years in the high-tech industry and finished his career at IBM Corporation.
He has traveled the world extensively, speaks several languages, and prides himself in approaching everyone from a multicultural and unique point of view. He is a graduate of St. Edward’s University with a Master’s degree in Counseling and is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT).
512-329-5757, Ext. 110
Michele Martin, MS, CCLS
Child Life Specialist
Michele Martin has over 20 years of experience providing emotional and developmental support for children and families in health care environments. Michele has worked as a Certified Child Life Specialist (CCLS) for the Children’s Medical Center of Dallas; as a mental health consultant for Head Start; and as a middle-school science teacher at Bishop Garriga Middle Preparatory School. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Master of Science degree in Human Development and Family Studies from the University of North Texas. She also has her teacher’s certification for the 4th – 8th grades. Her husband and four children are her pride and joy.
512-329-5757, Ext. 205
Julie May, CCLS
Child Life Specialist
Julie joined the Wonders & Worries team with more than 15 years of clinical experience supporting children and their families as they navigate the medical journey. She treasures her many years as a child life specialist at Baylor’s Our Children’s House in Dallas, Texas, serving families in need of medicine and rehabilitation services. For the past seven years, Julie served in a senior leadership role on the child life team at Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas. She holds a bachelor of science in Human Development and Family Sciences from the University of Texas at Austin.
Julie is also known as “Mom!” to four crazy kiddos of her own. She and her husband enjoy camping and exploring the awesome hill country with their children and silly golden retriever. Julie has a knack for repurposing old furniture, which led to the creation of her own furniture design company, Firefly Skies. Climber of trees and often covered in paint, Julie is always up for an adventure.
512-329-5757, Ext. 316
Allison Moore, CCLS
Child Life Specialist, MS, CCLS
Allison is a certified child life specialist (CCLS) and joins the Wonders & Worries team with over twelve years of experience supporting children and families during healthcare experiences, primarily in the emergency center and medical home setting. Allison facilitates New Wonderers groups at Wonders & Worries. She also currently works at the Children’s Comprehensive Care Clinic in Austin, serving children with medical complexity and their family members. She is a facility dog handler for the clinic’s full-time service dog, Solo, and incorporates his gentle nature into her child life interventions with patients and siblings. In her free time, Allison loves to do pilates or explore the outdoors with her husband and spunky family of four kids!
Allison holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Humanities with a minor in elementary education and a concentration in working with students with special needs from Trinity University. She also recently completed a Master of Science in Child Life at Bank Street Graduate School of Education.
Julie Neitzel, CCLS
Child Life Specialist
Julie joins the Wonders & Worries team with over 20 years as a child life specialist. She has worked as a Certified Child Life Specialist at both Children’s Medical Center in Dallas and Dell Children’s Medical Center. During those years, she provided developmental and emotional support to infants, children and their families in most areas of the hospital. Additionally, Julie worked at Austin Area Birthing Center, teaching classes for siblings to be and provided parent instruction in infant massage. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Oklahoma State University in Child Development and is also a certified infant massage instructor.
Julie loves spending her time in the outdoors and with her family. She has two amazing children, who have made her use every skill she ever learned as a child life specialist! She and her husband enjoy watching musicals, taking the kids camping and cooking together on weekends.
Child Life Specialist
Lori Novitski joins Wonders & Worries with over 15 years experience as a Certified Child Life Specialist (CCLS) and as a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS). She graduated from Texas State University in 2003 with a bachelor of science degree in Recreation Administration with a Therapeutic Emphasis. Lori has dedicated the past 15 years to The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio.
Lori and her husband have young, beautiful twin daughters who keep them extremely busy. Lori and her family value family time and love to travel. Their favorite destination is Disney World! Lori and her husband have been known to be rollercoaster enthusiasts.
Adrianna Ortega, CCLS
Bilingual Child Life Specialist
Adrianna is primarily responsible for providing direct clinical services through psychosocial support to children, adolescents and teens in bilingual or Spanish-speaking families who have a seriously ill parent.
Adrianna holds Bachelor’s degrees in Religious Studies and Human Development, and Family Studies with an emphasis in Early Childhood Development from the University of Texas at Austin. She is a certified child life specialist (CCLS) and has more than 12 years of experience supporting children affected by serious illness or injury. Adrianna has two children and they love being outdoors.
512-329-5757, Ext. 203
Bilingual Child Life Assistant / Resource Navigator
Maria Patiño graduated from The University of Texas at Austin in 2013 with a degree in Human Development and Family Sciences. She completed her child life practicum with Wonders & Worries, and is applying for her child life internship, the next step to becoming a certified child life specialist (CCLS). Maria volunteers with Dell Children’s Medical Center, the Down Syndrome Association of Central Texas and El Buen Samaritano. Maria is fluent in English and Spanish, and her superpower is creating delicious vegan baked goods.
512-329-5757, Ext. 315
Rhiannon is currently a junior at UT Austin pursuing Marketing with a minor in MIS at McCombs School of Business. She has a customer service background with prior internship experience in Austin. Rhiannon’s mother was diagnosed with Lupus before she was born, so she feels strong ties to Wonders & Worries and the services they provide.
In her free time, Rhiannon enjoys yoga, reading, and playing the oboe.
Jacquelyn Rebecek, MS, CCLS
Child Life Specialist
Jacquelyn received her Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice from St. Edward’s University in 2000 and her Masters in Family and Child Development with a focus in Child Life from Texas State University in 2007. She has over 11 years of experience working as a Certified Child Life Specialist (CCLS). Prior to coming to Wonders and Worries, Jacquelyn directed the children’s bereavement program at The Christi Center providing therapeutic support groups, activities, and events for children and teens and parental support to parents in grief.
Jacquelyn is honored to come alongside Wonders and Worries families during their illness journey, offering psychosocial support that helps them see their strengths as individuals and as a family. She is also honored to hold the title of Total Boy Mom and can often be found adventuring through Austin and beyond with her husband and two boys.
512-329-5757, Ext. 323
Jordan Ruch, BA, CCLS
Jordan joins Wonders & Worries with over 6 years of experience as a Certified Child Life Specialist, supporting patients and families in the healthcare setting. She graduated from the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor, where she earned a bachelor’s degree, studying Art & Design and Psychology. Most recently, Jordan worked at Dell Children’s Medical Center with the trauma and surgical population. She is excited to join the outreach team at Wonders & Worries, utilizing her passion and experience in child life to raise awareness, and help build the community, of Wonders & Worries. Outside of work, Jordan dances and teaches fitness classes, including Barre and Yoga. She also enjoys spending time outdoors, especially around water!
Leslie comes to us from the American Red Cross where she managed special events for five years. Prior to that she was a stay at home mom for 12 years. During that time, she held almost every PTA position, and volunteered with multiple organizations. That time spent helping others solidified her love of philanthro pies and desire to work for a non-profit.
She is married to her college sweetheart and has two children. Leslie graduated from the University of Houston and is very active in the Cougar Austin Alumni Group. She spends her f ree time volunteering as football team mom for her son and burning up the road between Austin and College Station traveling to visit her daughter. If you can’t find her doing any of those things, she will probably be by the pool reading a book or visiting her favorite winery in Fredericksburg.
512-329-5757, Ext 320
Deanna Smith, CCLS
Child Life Specialist
Deanna Smith joins Wonders & Worries with more than 12 years of experience as a certified child life specialist (CCLS) in the hospital setting. She graduated from Lubbock Christian University with a degree in Child Development & Family Studies. Deanna completed her internship at Scottish Rite Hospital in Dallas and started professionally at Children’s Medical Center Dallas. Most recently she worked at Children’s Hospital of San Antonio.
Deanna also teaches yoga. With spare time, she enjoys relaxing with her husband and two little girls – whether it’s a tea party at the house or vacationing at the beach. And when the girls aren’t watching, her favorite indulgence is anything chocolate!
Lara Strickland, MS, CCLS
Child Life Specialist
With a Bachelor’s Degree in Public Relations, Lara Strickland joined Children’s Medical Center of Dallas as the Outreach Coordinator in pediatric oncology before entering the specialty field of child life. She received her Master’s in Human Development and Family Studies in 1997 at the University of North Texas and became certified as a child life specialist (CCLS) in 2002. Lara served as a child life specialist in hematology/oncology and worked with children coping with cancer and sickle cell anemia – as well as their siblings.
Lara joined the staff at Wonders & Worries part-time in 2005. She provides individual support in the playroom and school environments for children coping with illness in the family. She has facilitated weekly teen groups and parenting classes. She is married and has three children.
512-329-5757, Ext. 118
After graduating with a BA in accounting, Beth worked in accounting for a number of years. When she became a full-time mom, she continued doing bookkeeping for her husband’s business. During the 12 years of raising two daughters, Beth had the opportunity to volunteer for many different organizations and became passionate about nonprofit work. For her second career, Beth managed the Texas Retired Teachers Foundation, gaining experience in fundraising and donor relationship management while overseeing the foundation’s four charitable programs. She continues serving on the Board of Directors of Art From the Streets. Beth’s hidden talent is that she knows how to milk a cow.
512-329-5757, Ext. 102
Crystal Wilkins, MEd, CCLS, LPC, RPT
Program Director, Operations and Child Life Specialist
Crystal completed her Bachelor’s degree in Family and Child development from Texas State University in 2003, and then earned her certification as a child life specialist (CCLS). Crystal worked for 12 years in hospitals, providing developmental and coping support to children impacted by illness, hospitalization and trauma. In 2013, Crystal completed her Master’s degree from the University of North Texas in Counseling, and obtained her License in Professional Counseling (LPC) and Registration in Play Therapy. (RPT) Crystal recently worked as the play therapist at Dell Children’s Medical Center and continues providing play therapy and counseling support at Austin Stone Counseling Center.
Crystal’s superpowers include her ability to recall dance routines from her childhood and the power to identify an episode of Friends that may provide wisdom for just about any situation. She is more at home on the lake than anywhere else on the planet.
512-329-5757, Ext. 114