MEET OUR STAFF
Mary Nell McPherson, Executive Director
Since 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 seventeen 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 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.
Shelley Backstrom, Senior Administrative Coordinator
Shelley joined Freedom School Partners in January 2018. As Senior Administrative Coordinator, Shelley is committed to serving Freedom School staff members and pushing forward fresh ideas on how to best utilize technology to better serve our scholars.
Previously, Shelley worked at the Institute for Scrap Recycling, Inc. as Legislative Analyst and the United States Senate as the Office Manager.
Shelley went to University of North Georgia and is a native of Georgia. She has two sisters with lots of nephews and nieces to read to. Shelley’s favorite childhood book is The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Paul Barnhardt, Chief Operating Officer
Paul Barnhardt joined Freedom School Partners in September 2015 and currently serves as the Chief Operating Officer. In this role, he supports the organizations program, administration and operations work. Paul also engages in key issues including maximizing collaboration across existing stakeholder communities and strategic NC Center for Afterschool Programs Advisory Board and is involved in several community agencies including Leadership Charlotte and Read Charlotte.
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 eighteen 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 earned 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 has been a part of the Freedom School movement for more than 13 years. He has previously served as an intern, site coordinator, lead regional site coordinator, and program 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, where he met his wife Dr. Myah Davis while serving in Los Angeles. He is an active member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc., RMJJ and Leadership Charlotte. 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.
Allen and Myah have two daughters, Amiya and Mileah who have been freedom school scholars every summer. Allen’s favorite childhood book is Love You Forever by Robert Munsch.
Jenna Harris, Communications and Development Coordinator
Prior to joining Freedom School Partners, Jenna worked for several non-profit organizations including the Boys & Girls Club, Alliance Theatre and Blumenthal Performing Arts.
In her role, she manages social media, media relations, branding, messaging and all things that relate to internal and external marketing and communication for Freedom School Partners.
Jenna graduated from Indiana University with a degree in Journalism, specializing in advertising and multimedia. She is a storyteller at heart and enjoys telling stories through written, visual and video mediums. She is also passionate about volunteering and earned a Congressional Gold Medal by completing over 400 hours in voluntary pubic service.
In her free time, Jenna enjoys yoga and exploring the food scene in Charlotte. Her favorite childhood book is Miss Mopp’s Lucky Day by Leslie McGuire.
Tommy Hudnall, Volunteer and Donor Coordinator
Tommy Hudnall joined the Freedom School Partners team as Volunteer and Donor Coordinator in January, 2018.
Tommy has spent the past decade working with not-for-profit organizations. Most recently, he was Data Manager for Boston-based hunger-relief organization Project Bread – The Walk for Hunger, Inc. Prior to that, he held multiple positions at Aldersgate United Methodist Retirement Community in Charlotte, assisting with Marketing and Development initiatives (among other tasks!).
A native of Indian Land, SC, Tommy has a Bachelor of Science in Integrated Marketing Communication from Winthrop University. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, crafting (he knits, crochets, and quilts), playing the clarinet, cooking, and spending time with his husband, Jose, and two dogs. To really make his day, ask about Rocco the Wonder Pug! His favorite childhood book is Johnny Lion’s Rubber Boots by Edith Thacher Hurd.
Nikki Keith, Chief Development Officer
Nikki Keith serves as the Chief Development Officer. With 20 years of fund development experience, she began her career as a district executive with the Boys Scouts of America in Greenville, South Carolina. Scouting brought Nikki to Charlotte where she served for four years with the Mecklenburg County Council. Nikki has also held professional roles with the United Way of Central Carolinas, Elon Homes, Schools for Children and the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture.
Nikki is also a member of the Rotary Club of Charlotte, the Charlotte Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the Town of Matthews Cultural Diversity Committee and Crown Point Elementary School PTA. She is a graduate of Leadership Charlotte Class 38 and CBI’s LU 40 Class V.
Nikki received her undergraduate degree from Western Kentucky University (Go Tops!) and a Master of Business Administration from Wake Forest University. Nikki lives in Matthews with her husband Shawn, son Collin and daughter Corrin.
In her free time, Nikki enjoys reading, spending time outdoors and cooking. Her favorite childhood book is Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume.
Nancy Ralston, Individual Giving 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. Currently, Nancy serves as a tutor at First Ward Elementary with the Heart Math program, which she has been a part of since 2016. Nancy and her husband Harris are members of Social Venture Partners – Charlotte, and Nancy serves on their E3 Committee. Her favorite childhood book is The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.
Sally Sacco, Finance/ HR Director
Sally Sacco joined Freedom School Partners in February 2013 and currently serves as the Finance and HR Director. Prior to joining Freedom School, Sally worked for Carolinas Healthcare Systems as an accountant for five years before staying home with her children. During that time Sally served at her church as chair of Vacation Bible School and the Weekday School Board.
Sally graduated from Presbyterian College with a degree in Accounting and is a native of Charlotte. She has been married to Brian Sacco for 17 years, and they are proud parents to two boys: Carson and Connor. Her favorite childhood book is Go Dog Go! by P.D. Eastman.
Necole Watts, School Year Engagement Coordinator
For over 23 years, Necole Watts has been shaping the lives of children. Through her work as a group home counselor and an advocate for children, 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 the family whether at home or at work.
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.
Necole graduated from Pfeiffer University (formerly Pfeiffer College) with a degree in criminal justice and sociology. Her favorite childhood book is Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss.
Tiffany Williams, Regional Director of Families
Tiffany 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 Region Director of Families, responsible for the comprehensive leadership for multiple Freedom School sites around the city of Charlotte. She also sets the strategy for scholar registration and 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.
Alexis Young, Enrichment Director
Alexis Young joined Freedom School Partners in February 2016. Her main areas of focus are logistics and planning the afternoon activity portion of the day for scholars. Alexis also works closely with all teams internally at Freedom School Partners, seasonal staff, site partners and community members to ensure that the Freedom School Partners program is effective and fun for the scholars and accomplishes its mission.
Alexis graduated from Davidson College in spring 2015 with a Hispanic studies degree. She also has a deep sense of service to all. In college, her best friend exposed her to Freedom School and Alexis would visit almost every day and build relationships with the kids. She was then inspired to tutor at the local community center, Ada Jenkins, where she kept up the relationships between the kids she met over the summer and during the school year.
Since June 2018, Alexis has been married to her husband who is also a native Carolinian. She is fluent in Spanish and English and loves to eat anything that is salty! Her favorite childhood book is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë.
MEET OUR BOARD OF DIRECTORS
Frank Barnes, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Kim Beal, Grant Thornton, LLP
Pat Crull, Ph.D, Community Volunteer
Moses Fox III, Central Piedmont Community College
Patty Funderburg, Community Volunteer
Jim Gallagher, Anderson LeNeave
Jennifer Green, PNC Wealth Management
Tara Patterson-Hammons, Sister State Committee
Greg Harper (Vice Chair), Bank of America
Bill Lorenz, Bank of America
Kimberly McMillan, Charlotte Regional Realtors Association
Geoffrey Mize (Treasurer) , Ernst & Young
Laura Smith, Foundation for the Carolinas
Laura Solitario, McLaughlin Young Group
Wendy Stockton, American Airlines
Derrick Thompson, Wells Fargo
Burnet Tucker, HR & Executive Coach
Mary Vickers-Koch, Central Piedmont Community College
Denytra Logan-Whitner, Community Volunteer
Juanita Wade (Chair), Community Volunteer
Kevin Wright, Wells Fargo