Staff & Board of Directors
Who We Are

Staff & Board of Directors


Mary Nell McPherson, Executive Director

Mary Nell McPhersonSince January 2000, Mary Nell McPherson has served as the executive director of Freedom School Partners working toward their mission to engage, educate, and empower children to succeed in school and in life through quality, year-round educational enrichment programs.

McPherson has been a leader in Freedom School Partners’ growth from one site serving 100 children to nineteen sites serving 1,200 children.

McPherson has worked in the nonprofit sector for over 20 years. Her substantial history in nonprofit management includes serving as the director of operations for Habitat for Humanity in Charlotte and support specialist for Crisis Assistance Ministry.

McPherson also served on the Friendship Trays Board of Directors and has remained a Meals on Wheels driver for the past 20 years. McPherson also served on the Johnson YMCA Advisory Board for a short time in the early 1990’s. In October 2009, McPherson received Mecklenburg Ministries’ honorable Community Leader Award for ten years of service in the Charlotte community.

Due to the success of Freedom Schools in Charlotte, McPherson was appointed to the national Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools Advisory Board in 2011. An ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA), she believes that education and the knowledge of God’s love are the keys for children growing into their potential.

She graduated from Mary Baldwin College 1979 and moved to Charlotte, NC to work for then, Duke Power and made a move to the nonprofit sector in 1985 to work for Crisis Assistance Ministry. After 10 years she worked for Habitat for Humanity and was hired as the executive director of then, Seigle Avenue Partners in 1999.

Mary Nell is married to Kevin Strawn with whom she has two college-aged daughters, Mollie and Rosemarie. In her free time she enjoys practicing centering prayer and yoga. Her favorite childhood book is Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder.


Nikki Keith, Chief Development Officer

img_0887With more than 15 years’ experience in non-profit communications and fund development, Nikki Keith currently serves as the Director of Development for Freedom School Partners.  Mrs. Keith provides strategic leadership in developing philanthropic relationships in support of FSP programs. She is also responsible for annual support from individuals, corporations, and foundations, as well as special events.  Nikki began her non-profit career with the Boy Scouts of America holding professional roles at Blue Ridge Council (Greenville, SC) and Mecklenburg County Council (Charlotte, NC).  In addition, Mrs. Keith has served as Director of Resource Development and the Women’s Leadership Initiative for United Way of Central Carolinas.  Prior to joining Freedom School Partners, Mrs. Keith served as Director of Development for the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts+Culture.

Mrs. Keith holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and Public Relations from Western Kentucky University as well as a Master of Business Administration from Wake Forest University.  She is a member of Leadership Charlotte Class 38, the Rotary Club of Charlotte and the Association for Fundraising Professionals.   She lives in Matthews with her husband Shawn, 8 year-old son Collin and 5 year-old daughter Corrin.


Paul Barnhardt, Chief Operating Officer

Paul BarnhardtPaul Barnhardt joined Freedom School Partners in September 2015 as director of program development. In this role, he works to provide leadership to the program team and takes on projects identified as part of the post-summer debrief process. Paul also engages in work around several key issues moving forward, including maximizing collaboration across existing stakeholder communities and strategic expansion.

Paul has dedicated his professional career to serve as an advocate and supporter of underserved youth in the communities he calls home. He saw first-hand the impact Freedom Schools have on the lives of children while in his role as principal of Montclaire Elementary School. Paul brings fifteen years of teaching, non-profit leadership, and school leadership experience to his work at Freedom School Partners.

Paul graduated with his undergraduate degree in Political Science and Elementary Education from UNC – Chapel Hill and got his master’s degree from Delta State University. He is married to Kelly Barnhardt and they are the proud parents of three children, Gilbert, Molly, and Ronan.


Allen Davis, Director of Secondary Scholar Initiatives/ Regional Director of Operations

Allen DavisAllen has been apart of the Freedom School movement for more than 6 years. He has previously served as an intern, site coordinator, and lead regional site coordinator. He believes in working to make Freedom School a great place for thousands of children across the city of Charlotte. Allen has also served as an Ella Baker Trainer for The Children’s Defense Fund. He is an active member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. Allen attended the University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he majored in Africana Studies. Allen believes that the work of Freedom School Partners is crucial to the betterment of Charlotte and our nation as we produce the leaders of tomorrow.


Sally Sacco, Director of Finance/ Director of Human Resources

Sally SaccoSally joined Freedom School Partners in February 2013. As bookkeeper, Sally is committed to being a faithful steward of the resources available to Freedom School Partners. Sally volunteers at Myers Park Presbyterian Church as head of Vacation Church Camp and the Weekday School Board. Previously, Sally worked at Carolinas Healthcare Systems as an accountant. Sally went to Presbyterian College and is a native of Charlotte. She is married to Brian and has two beautiful children, Carson and Connor.

Alexis Mann, Regional Director of Enrichment

IMG_9982Alexis Mann joined FSP in February 2016 as the administrative coordinator. She works closely with all departments to ensure that FSP is running at the most efficient level possible and provides support to all of the FSP segments.

Alexis comes to Freedom School Partners from Schaeffler Group USA where she held the an intern in the Human Resources department. In addition, she worked as a communications catalyst with Charlotte Bilingual Preschool to ease the technological transition as they moved sites and to help bridge the digital divide with their children by researching and purchasing the latest and greatest technology for the kids to have at their fingertips.

She graduated from Davidson College in spring 2015 with a Hispanic studies degree and has a deep sense of service to all. She was exposed to Freedom School by means of her best friend while in college. She would go visit almost every day and built relationships with the kids. With those built relationships between herself and the kids she was then moved to tutor at the local community center,  Ada Jenkins, where she was able to keep the relationship going between the kids she meet over the summer during the school year as well. She is fluent and Spanish and English. Her favorite book is Jane Eyre and she loves to eat anything that is salty.

Kenya Smith, Communications Coordinator

Kenya joined Freedom School Partners in February 2015 as a part of the Program Team. She transitioned into her role as communications coordinator as part of the Development Team in October 2015.

In her role she works on social media and website management, media relations, branding, messaging, and all things that relate to the internal and external marketing and communication health of Freedom School. She also works as part of the Development team managing the donor database and providing administrative support.

Kenya graduated from UNC-Charlotte with a degree in Communication Studies and Public Relations. She also received the Epley Certification in International Public Relations. She is a member of the Public Relations Society of America and serves on the Board of Directors for IABC-Charlotte as VP of Online Communications. She is fluent in Spanish and English.

Kenya enjoys traveling, photography, writing and being a mom to her pet chihuahua, Kobe. Her favorite childhood book is A Bad Case of Stripes by David Shannon.


Nancy Ralston, Major Gifts Associate

Prior to joining Freedom School Partners, Nancy worked in the Advancement Office at Trinity Episcopal School for 4 years serving as their Advancement Assistant for the first year and then moving into the Annual Giving and Alumni Relations Manager position in September of 2014. Nancy began her non-profit career working as the National Communications Director for Road Safe America’s “Drive Safer Sunday” Campaign in Atlanta, GA before moving to Charlotte in January of 2012 and joining the Development Office team at Discovery Place, Inc. Nancy graduated from the Journalism and Mass Communications School at the University of South Carolina in 2011 with a BA in Public Relations and is a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

In her free time, Nancy enjoys riding and spending time with her horse, Gracie, whom she has had since childhood. This past year, Nancy and her husband served as math tutors at Highland Renaissance Academy through the Heart Tutoring program. Nancy’s favorite childhood book is The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.

Tiffany Williams, Regional Director of Families

Tiffany WilliamsTiffany Williams began her work at Freedom School Partners in the summer of 2007 as a servant leader intern. Since then she has served as an intern at both the Highland Renaissance and Avondale Freedom School sites, as well as worked in the Freedom School Afterschool program at Sedgefield Elementary. Tiffany was able to continue her work with Freedom School Partners in 2011 when she joined the Program Team as program assistant. She is now the scholar & family coordinator, responsible for the registration of all scholars in Freedom School as well as Parent Engagement. Her sincere passion for community building and working with families drives her work to help Freedom School Partners in its vision for a “Freedom School for every child who needs one.”

Tiffany graduated from UNC-Greensboro with a degree in Spanish with a concentration in Education. She also has extensive training in Human Development and Family Studies. She is fluent in Spanish and plays three musical instruments. Her favorite childhood book is Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein.


Necole Watts, School Year Engagement Coordinator

Necole WattsFor over 23 years, Necole Watts has been shaping the lives of children. Whether through her work as a group home counselor, an advocate for children, or working in the Special Education Department of Garinger High School, there is no doubt that there are children who will become better adults as a result of their time spent with Ms. Watts.

As the third child of four, she is often described as a team player who loves being a part of family whether at home or at work.

Her love for team sports has been demonstrated on the softball field where she plays both outfield and catcher positions, a coach of the elementary level team with park and recreation basketball, the coach of women’s basketball at Garinger High School, and assistant coach at South Mecklenburg High School.

As school-year engagement coordinator, Necole continues to use her gifts to provide mentorship for children of all ages. She collaborates with community partners, supporting their involvement with scholars and their communities into the school year after Freedom School ends each summer. Her favorite childhood book is Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss.




Juanita Wade (Chair), Community Volunteer

Frank Barnes, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

Kim Beal, Grant Thornton, LLP

Pat Crull, Ph.D, Time Warner Cable (Retired)

Lisa Emory, Allen Tate Company

Patty Funderburg, Community Volunteer

Jim Gallagher, Anderson LeNeave

Jennifer Green, PNC Wealth Management

Tara Patterson-Hammons, Community Volunteer

Greg Harper (Vice Chair), Bank of America

Denytra Logan-Whitner, Community Volunteer

Bill Lorenz, Bank of America

Geoffrey Mize (Treasurer) , Ernst & Young

Laura Smith, Foundation for the Carolinas

Laura Solitario, Ettain Group

Gary Starr, Starr & Dickens Orthodontics

Wendy Stockton, American Airlines

Derrick Thompson, NTT Data Consulting

Campbell Tucker, Novant Health

Mary Vickers-Koch, Central Piedmont Community College

Kevin Wright, Wells Fargo