Our Mission

We are a Christ-centered, after-school program that takes kids by the hand and walks with them through college, helping them have abundant life—mind, body and soul.

Our Leadership Team

Bethany Arvan

Director of College and Career Support


"I’m excited to serve with an organization that enables me to be part of The Solution by sharing the truth of who Christ is while showing love to children and families in a tangible way."

At By The Hand, Bethany Arvan is committed to our kids’ knowing Christ personally and experiencing His transformative power in their lives. She comes to us after facilitating high school and volunteer groups at Chicago nonprofit and social service organizations on behalf of the Center for Student Missions in Chicago. Bethany has a Bachelor of Arts in urban ministry from Moody Bible Institute. While she was a student, she worked with urban junior high youth and children with HIV. She also taught English as a second language in Sarajevo, Bosnia. She attends Park Community Church in Rogers Park, where she serves in their Loop Kids ministry. Recognizing that God cares for the whole person, she is a committed nurturer of the whole child—mind, body and soul. Bethany is part of The Solution.

Bernadette Ballenger

Site Director, By The Hand—Austin


"I want to help make The Solution possible by mentoring and helping youth make wise and healthy decisions. That’s how I want to serve my community."

Before joining By The Hand Club, Bernadette Ballenger was a teacher assistant at Daystar School. There she worked with first- and second-grade students during the day and first- through eighth-graders after school. She also worked with Sunshine Gospel Ministries in their after-school tutoring program. She is a mentor and Sunday school teacher at Ellis Avenue Church. Bernadette began at By The Hand as a volunteer, before becoming a team leader and then a site director. An excellent leader, she lives in the Austin community with her kids, where she helps make The Solution possible.

Rebecca Bognet

Director of College and Career Readiness


“I'm honored to serve By The Hand youth and families and to help make The Solution possible. Serving others and helping them have eternal life is the essence of true religion.”

Rebecca Bognet has a passion for people’s spiritual, academic and physical development—especially for under-resourced youth and families. She has served as a youth center director, academic program coordinator, community program consultant, middle school teacher and Sunday school teacher, as well as a vocal and visual artist. In 2012, she completed her first full marathon to raise money for a youth organization and later took a missions trip with a local singles ministry, helping to serve over 75 orphans and 600 health fair patrons in Nigeria. Rebecca holds a Master of Education in youth development from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Bachelor of Arts in history from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Rebecca and her husband have one daughter and attend ECWA Goodnews Church-Chicago. Rebecca is part of The Solution.

Constance Giere

Managing Director of Operations


“I love seeing the kids become The Solution as they grow into young adults who know and love the Lord and who desire to bring positive change to their communities.”

Connie Giere was a committed volunteer for 12 years before becoming the Managing Director of Operations. She is passionate about seeing our kids reach their God-given potential through the enriching programs provided at By The Hand. In her current role, Connie is leveraging her professional experience to develop and implement strategies and policies in key areas, including IT, HR, facilities and volunteers.

Before By The Hand, Connie was the Chief Health Informatics Officer at Loyola University Health System, and she continues to consult on behalf of the Epic Emeritus Consulting Organization, part of Epic Systems Corporation in Madison, WI.

As a registered nurse, Connie has an extensive critical care nursing background in the Chicago area. Connie received a Bachelor of Science degree from Trinity International University and an MBA in Health Care Management from Loyola University Chicago.

Michele Hoekstra

Director of Learning


“My desire is for all kids to learn. I love seeing them excited about something they understand, find interesting or just discovered, and the smile that spreads across their faces as a result."

Michele Hoekstra loves the natural curiosity of kids and has a heart for education—especially literacy and reading instruction. She has taught kindergarten through eighth grade for 16 years at elementary schools in the South Loop, Lawndale and Austin neighborhoods. She believes being a strong reader helps to open doors of opportunities for kids. To help make The Solution possible, she is applying all of her experience to help ensure that all of our kids are able to read at grade level.

Michele has a Master of Education in language and literacy from National Louis University and a Bachelor of Science in elementary education with a kindergarten endorsement from Taylor University. At Calvary Memorial Church, Michele has been involved with the prayer ministry and small group ministries.

Omokhosen Imoukhuede

Director of Volunteer Development


“I love working with children and helping them recognize that they are unique gifts in the eyes of God. It’s a privilege to be providing the educational, emotional and spiritual support they need.”

Passionate about serving kids who face challenges, Omokhosen “Osen” Imoukhuede has been volunteering with kids for over 20 years. She is a member of the Citylight Church, where she also serves as the director of the Kidzcity Department and manages the programming of the children’s church. As Director of Volunteer Development, she loves connecting people, churches and organizations with volunteer opportunities within By The Hand Club For Kids. She takes a special interest in enabling volunteers to use their skills and abilities to help our students have abundant life and make a difference in their communities.

Osen has a Master’s in educational leadership from DePaul University and a Bachelor of Law degree from the University of Benin, Nigeria, and is called to the Nigerian Bar. She helps make The Solution possible.

Sarah James

Managing Director of K-8 Program Operations


“I love being able to work with children in every area of their life. And I love teaching our kids who God is and how much He cares for them.”

Sarah James loves helping kids develop their God-given talents, often helping them overcome the challenges they face to become The Solution. Prior to her current role at By The Hand, Sarah served as the Site Director for our Cabrini-Green and Englewood clubs, our Volunteer Coordinator and a team leader.

Her previous experience includes being an elementary school teacher for Indianapolis Public Schools, the Indianapolis Youth Program Coordinator for Baxter YMCA and a Youth Program Director for the Chicago Park District. Sarah has a Master of Arts in urban ministry from Moody Graduate School and a Bachelor of Arts in elementary education from the University of Indianapolis. She attends Chicago West Bible Church, and she is the proud guardian of Keewaun and Trayvon Williams, two boys from Cabrini-Green. She is part of The Solution.

Dezsiree Jones

Site Director, By The Hand—Cabrini-Green


“The kids—that’s what keeps me going. My students. They are The Solution.”

Formerly a kindergarten teacher at Cambridge Academy, Dezsiree Jones is passionate about helping our kids realize and develop their God-given potential. As site director, she is helping to make The Solution possible by ensuring that the kids receive the encouragement, love and support that kids from under-resourced neighborhoods need. It means a lot to her when she sees a child develop a personal relationship with Christ and succeed in school—and life—as someone who desires to help others, too.

Dezsiree holds a Bachelor of Science in child psychology and criminal justice from Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, IL. Dezsiree is actively involved at New Life Celebration Church of God in Dolton. She is the head Sunday school teacher for preschoolers as well as helping with the junior and senior high ministry. The children are her first priority. She is part of The Solution.

Marc Kole

Senior Director of Finance


“After supporters introduced me to the dedicated leaders and wonderful staff of By The Hand, I sensed the Lord making me available to serve.”

Marc Kole is passionate about using his experience in finance to help others. Before helping to make The Solution possible at By The Hand, he began his career at Arthur Andersen in Grand Rapids, MI, eventually transferring to the Andersen office in Chicago. He has served in top financial and leadership roles for several companies, most recently as a Chief Financial Officer at Hope Network, a $125 million Christian, nonprofit, healthcare and human services provider in Grand Rapids. Currently, he’s an independent trustee and the audit committee chairman for Invesco ETFs. Marc graduated from the University of Michigan with a Bachelor’s in Business Administration and is a non-practicing CPA in Michigan. He attends Thornapple Evangelical Covenant Church, where he has served as Treasurer and as a member of the Elder Council and the Finance Committee. Marc is part of The Solution.

Jamie Morriss

Site Director, By The Hand—Altgeld-Murray


“Children are our present, not just our future. That's why I love when Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me’ (Matt. 19:14).”

Jamie Morriss-Benoit is passionate about doing everything she can to help make The Solution possible—that is, being a part of what God is doing in the lives of our kids. Her goal is to see children experience abundant life as followers of Jesus—the foundation for abundant life—and to see them lead others as active, positive members of their communities.

Jamie received her degree in psychology from California Lutheran University, which encouraged and deepened her passion for holistic ministry that nurtures and serves kids—body, mind and soul. She loves when children are emphasized, seeing that they too are vital in the kingdom of God here on earth and have so much to offer. She is part of The Solution.

Yolanda Perry

Director of Crisis and Compassion


“We empower children to be the change they want to see in their communities, being The Solution by following Jesus, the ultimate solution for humankind’s redemption. Transforming one kid at a time can lead to the transformation of the community where our child resides.”

At By The Hand, Yolanda works with parents who are undergoing a crisis, praying with and encouraging them while helping them develop a plan. She says, “Working for a Christian organization that exemplifies the love of Christ is a calling from God.”

Before By The Hand, Yolanda served families for 12 years. As a New Mom Home Visiting Manager, she impacted families by managing four social service staff. As a Doula for Catholic Charities, she supported at-risked teenagers by assisting them during their pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum. Yolanda holds a Bachelor of Arts in Organizational Management from Ashford University, Clinton, IA, and a Masters of Science in Nonprofit Management from Spertus Institute, Chicago, IL.

Yolanda is a member of the New Life Covenant Southeast and serves on the New Members and Intercessory Prayer Ministries.

Nicholas Rivera

Senior Director of NXT


“I appreciate the humility with which By The Hand nurtures kids, selflessly loving regardless of the response. And I am inspired every time a child sees their value and worth as a child of God, created with a great purpose as The Solution.”

Chicagoan born and raised in a gang and drug-infested neighborhood, Nicholas Rivera was fortunate to have a strong family that encouraged education, sports and faith. When he was 16 years old, God opened his eyes to the spiritual depravity on his block and in school, leading Nicholas to commit his life to Jesus, saving him from prison and death.

Since then, God awakened in Nicholas a desire to walk alongside students in impoverished communities in Chicago, mentoring and supporting them in every way, pointing them to Jesus. He’s been a youth worker for 20 years and is the lead pastor of Engage Community Church in East Garfield Park.

At By The Hand, Nicholas leads the NXT design team responsible for the development of enrichment services for the older students across all of the By The Hand sites, including academic support, career development and spiritual direction. He also provides training, on-going support and resources for the NXT design team and Coaches to encourage a culture of world readiness among the older students.

Susannah Schwarcz Yount

Senior Director of Donor Relations


"I love seeing our children grow academically, physically and spiritually. God is doing tremendous things in our children’s lives and I feel truly blessed to be a part of it."

For Susannah Schwarcz Yount, it’s such a joy hearing our kids share their excitement about their first ABC report card, acceptance of Jesus as their Savior, graduation from high school or start of college. Bringing plenty of enthusiasm and a love for people, Susannah previously served as a director of development for Caris Pregnancy Centers, assistant director of development at Art Institute of Chicago, and served on the Wheaton College Alumni Association Board. Susannah has a Master of Business Administration from North Park University and Bachelor of Arts in communications from Wheaton College. She attends Park Community Church.

Donnita Travis

Founder and Executive Director


“God is so good, and He wants us to treat all people with love and respect. I am constantly in awe of how unique and special each child is. And I have been touched by the kids and their families.”

Donnita Travis will tell you that for her, there is no greater privilege than to serve God by investing in the lives of His children—mind, body and soul. Sensing God’s call to start a holistic after-school program to help children from Chicago’s most under-resourced neighborhoods have abundant life, Donnita resigned as president of an advertising agency to launch By The Hand Club For Kids in 2001. Under her leadership, By The Hand Club has grown from 16 kids in Cabrini-Green to serve more than 1,600 kids with six sites strategically located throughout Chicago—and an annual operating budget of more than $10M. She loves seeing how patience, love, and the positive learning environment that By The Hand provides transform the lives of kids, and is inspired by the abilities of kids.

Thankful for each child God brings to By The Hand, Donnita still serves as a volunteer, driven by her concern and love for each child. She has been widely recognized for her work with the kids of By The Hand—as Chicago’s Chicagoan of the Year 2012, the 2011 recipient of Mayor Daley’s SAGE award, and Northwestern Kellogg School of Management Social Entrepreneur of the Year in 2010. She holds an MBA from Northwestern University and a BA in English and communications from Spalding University. She also attended Harvard Business School for Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management after receiving the HBS Club of Chicago’s Roman Nomitch Fellowship.

Courtney Underwood

Director of Human Resources


“God is able to do exceedingly, abundantly above all that we ask or think.” Ephesians 3:20.

Courtney has a BA in organizational communication from DePaul University with over 12 years of experience in human resources administration, benefits management, workplace culture and employee engagement. She has a passion for serving God’s people and has a heart for helping children. Courtney is a current member of the Better Life Faith Church International, where she serves on the leadership team. She loves being able to use her talents to support the staff and mission at By The Hand. She is part of The Solution.

Lamont Washington

Site Director, By The Hand—Moving Everest


“If you change the life of a child, you will change the trajectory of his or her family. If you change the child's family, you will forever change the community.”

LaMont Washington has served as a director of youth development for over 14 years, across multiple states. His responsibilities have included overseeing the day-to-day operations of the program, program compliance, the creation of assessment and measurement tools, and creating curriculum and training resources for youth development and youth employment programs. He is a proud alumnus of the historic Wilberforce University–the first privately owned institution of higher education for African Americans (HBCU). Lamont strongly believes that the community is a great ally. He is part of The Solution.

Ben Waterman

Managing Director of Fund Development


“It’s amazing to see God working through By The Hand to help kids experience abundant, everlasting life. It’s exciting every time I see a child discover their extraordinary potential and choose to be The Solution.”

Ben Waterman has a desire to see every child reach his or her full potential in Christ, and this deep conviction to serve children who have the greatest need led Ben to join By The Hand. Prior to By The Hand, Ben served as a regional director of development at Taylor University, director and interim vice president of advancement at Northern Seminary, and an associate director of programming at Sports Ministries, Inc. He has a Bachelor of Arts in communications from Taylor University, a certificate in fundraising management from North Park University, and a master’s in organizational leadership from North Park University. Ben attends Glen Ellyn Bible Church, where he serves with the caregiving center and small groups. Ben helps make The Solution possible.

Rodney Williams, Sr.

Director of Entrepreneurship and Economic Development


“I once read a powerful quote written by Author, C.T. Studd and it read, ‘Only what you do for Christ will last;’ I’ve made a career out of loving what Jesus loves, doing the work he’s ordained and helping to introduce families to him in one way or the other, daily. My desire is to make an everlasting impact that will ultimately reach many generations to come. It gets no better!”

Rodney is a husband of 24 years and father of five. Along with his family, Rodney has served as a youth leader in various capacities of the church over the years. He’s traveled to South Africa and South America with other missionaries to engage and serve youth on many levels. His passion for young people is fueled by the things he managed to escape in his own youth while growing up in communities like Garfield Park and Austin.

Before By The Hand, Rodney was an administrative assistant at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago in the hematology department. Rodney is also a professional musician and ordained minister of the gospel. Together he’s used his platform and gifts to bring the arts to young people all over Chicago through his personal ministry called Cozy But Kingdom. CBK was/is a safe place used to give youth an opportunity to discover and develop their gifts and identity. It was CBK that ultimately introduced Rodney to new opportunities at BTH and he hasn’t looked back.

Eddie Wilson

Site Director, By The Hand—Englewood


“I want to work with By The Hand because of its holistic approach working with students. I want to help make The Solution possible by creating a space that is spiritually, physically and emotionally safe.”

Eddie Wilson’s positive, enthusiastic nature has a way of inspiring our kids to accomplish more than they thought possible. Eddie comes to By The Hand Club from the Rebecca K. Crown Youth Center, where he was the center director. During his tenure, Eddie significantly increased program funding and exceeded recruitment goals. He has also served as the director of the Family Economic Education Center and the Community Business and Technology Center in St. Louis. Eddie was responsible for supervising seven programs and helped several micro-enterprises start successful businesses. Eddie has a Master of Business Administration from DeVry University Keller Graduate School of Management and a bachelor’s in English and communication from East-West University. He is a member of New Life Christian Fellowship Oak Park. Eddie is part of The Solution.

Andraya Yousfi

Director of Partnerships and Development


“I am so passionate about supporting our children in being The Solution in their communities and the leaders in remedying centuries of injustice through the transformational love of Jesus.”

Andraya Yousfi works to expand the mission of By The Hand by supporting the development of new programs and building partnerships to reach more children and their families—mind, body and soul. Prior to joining By The Hand, Andraya served as chief of staff at an education policy organization, working towards educational equity throughout Chicago. She leverages over a decade of experience in policy creation, project management, community outreach, education and equity-based urban development. She began her career teaching high school special education through Teach For America and has dedicated her life to ensure that all barriers are removed so that the brilliant children of Chicago have a clear path to achieve their God-given callings. Andraya has a Bachelor of Arts from Wheaton College in psychology with a certificate in Urban Studies and her teaching certificate with a Learning Behavior Specialist endorsement from National Louis University. Recognizing that God has said His people will dwell in peaceful places, Andraya is committed to making The Solution possible.

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of Mine, you did for Me.’”

Matthew 25:40