Operations and Community Engagement

Dee Ann Benard

Chief Executive Officer

Lisa Bélanger

Director, Operations (On Leave)

Sandra Di Cesare

Director, Finance

Kelly Petraschuk

Director, Human Resources

Holly Udall

Manager, Communications

Emilee Ubels

Assistant, Communications

Jessica Pena

Assistant, Human Resources

Sustainable Housing Initiative

Asad Bhatti

Director, Housing

Asad is the Housing Director at RDN and works mainly with the Sustainable Housing Initiative (SHI). Asad graduated from the University of Alberta with a Bachelor of Commerce, majoring in Finance.

Asad initially started with the RDN as a Research Analyst in late 2017, writing reports and conducting research, but since then he has taken on the role of Capital Funding Manager, where he procures and manages funding on behalf of SHI clients. At the RDN Asad has made many great contributions over the years, his two key achievements being: the creation and ongoing management of a financial model used to test project feasibility, and co-authoring RDN’s Step-by-Step Guide to Developing Affordable Housing.

His personal interests include reading up on the latest financial news, weightlifting and history.

Trevor Horne

Manager, Community Development

Trevor is the RDN’s Community Development Manager, and works in consultation with rural communities to identify issues and develop strategies to provide solutions involving housing. He has experience connecting non-profits with communities, and has worked with Indigenous organizations in outreach and research capacities.

Trevor is passionate about building stronger, resilient communities, and believes in working with organizations to help them realize their goals. He has experience in politics, and is an engaged member of the Métis Nation of Alberta. Trevor has completed a degree in Political Science with a minor in Philosophy from MacEwan University.

Jesse Tjepkema

Analyst, Planning and Research

Jesse works with the Rural Development Network as a Planning and Research Analyst with the Sustainable Housing Initiative (SHI). Jesse supports pre-development planning and research work in the SHI at the RDN. Jesse completed a Master of Science in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Alberta in 2021, and a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and English in 2013. Thus far, Jesse’s research specialization has been focused on affordable housing, community demographic shifts, public transit, and social equitability. Previously, Jesse has worked as a housing caseworker for people experiencing homelessness in the Edmonton region and all across Canada in the natural resources/construction industry. His hobbies include reading, socializing, and running.

Nicole Cronkhite

Project Manager, Planning and Community Development

Nicole is a Project Manager of Planning and Community Development within the Sustainable Housing Initiative. Nicole has a background in design and project management, with over ten years of project coordination experience. She began with the RDN as a Planning Analyst in late 2021, and has since moved to managing the Enabling Housing Choice Project, a three-year research and policy project funded by the Alberta Real Estate Foundation aimed at identifying barriers to housing diversity across Alberta.

Nicole holds an Interior Design Technology diploma as well as a Bachelor of Technology degree specializing in Project Management and Sustainability. She completed her Master of Science in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Alberta in 2022.  Her research focused on the intersection of winter city design trends and their impact on social equity. Nicole is passionate about how the built environment affects social equity, and how policy shapes the experiences of folks living in rural and smaller communities. Her personal interests include hosting events and traveling to new places.

Kabir Shahani

Analyst, Finance & Research

Kabir works with the RDN as a Research and Financial Analyst primarily for the Sustainable Housing Initiative (SHI). Kabir holds a Master of Arts in Global Development Studies from Queen’s University.

Kabir has experience conducting research on affordable housing and energy efficient buildings policy frameworks positioned within and outside of Canada. He is passionate about addressing Canada’s rural housing shortage. He supports pre-development work for affordable rural housing projects through financial data analysis to determine the feasibility of meeting the needs and demands of a community. He works to expand access to sustainable housing initiatives for rural populations in Canada. His personal interests include cooking, exercising, and exploring new places.

Courtney Nguyen

Planning Intern

Courtney works with RDN’s Sustainable Housing Initiative (SHI) team as a Planning Intern to support the Project Manager in the Rural Housing Choice project. This project looks into policy changes in rural Alberta and Courtney assists in researching environmental scans, conducting surveys, and looking for potential partners. 

She is in her last year of her Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in Planning and minoring in Anthropology and Art & Design at the University of Alberta. In addition, she is working towards a Certificate in Sustainability. Courtney has also completed a co-op with the City of Edmonton, reviewing land use policy to approve development applications. 

Having a long background in the customer service industry, Courtney values connecting with individuals and building sincere relationships. She is passionate about the Winter City design and enjoys walking her two dogs in her free time.

Homelessness Initiatives

Sydney Stenekes

Director, Rural Homelessness

Sydney joined RDN's Homelessness Initiatives in 2020. Her job involves managing and administering funding for the Reaching Home program’s rural & remote stream in Alberta. Sydney enjoys engaging with various projects and communities to learn about and respond to homelessness and has a passion for improving community well-being.

Sydney grew up in Hamilton, Ontario and earned her Bachelor of Social Science with a specialization in International Economics and Development from the University of Ottawa. Sydney then completed her MSc. at the University of Alberta, where she engaged in a collaborative research project with Kátł’odeeche First Nation. The project highlights the importance of Traditional Ecological Knowledge in understanding environmental change.

Sydney draws on her previous experience with the federal government and community-based research to help advocate and build strong relationships with rural, remote and Indigenous communities in Alberta. In Sydney’s free time, she enjoys studying Spanish and tutoring high school students. You can also find her in the mountains hiking, cheering on the Blue Jays or Oilers and playing sports such as volleyball and softball.

Robin Kyler

Program Coordinator

Robin joined RDN as a Program Coordinator with Homelessness Initiatives in 2021, working directly with Reaching Home (RH) Funding and supporting projects accessing RH funding. Robin has been working in the non-profit sector since 2009, involved in the early stages of the Housing First Program in Edmonton as part of the initial 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness. In that time she has worked in areas including rental assistance subsidies, affordable housing and property management support.

Robin is passionate about connecting people to the information and support they need in order to achieve individual and collaborative success. She volunteers with her local community league and enjoys advocating for positive change through engagement with local organizations and government. She believes strongly in trauma informed, harm reduction, and community lead initiatives to be the key to creating long term positive impact. She lives in Edmonton with her family and enjoys hiking in the mountains, reading, mushroom foraging, and anything to do with Halloween.

Emma Wallace

Project Manager, Community Development & Homelessness Estimations

Emma is the Project Manager of Community Development and Homelessness Estimations. She graduated from Acadia University with a Bachelor of Community Development and from the University of Alberta with a Master of Arts in Community Engagement. Emma’s research and work experience have focused on poverty reduction and community wellness. She is passionate about supporting rural communities in their efforts to reduce poverty and homelessness and advocate for community health and wellness. Emma is committed to applying an equity lens to her work (and life) and is always looking to meet people where they are at. In her spare time, Emma can be seen enjoying the outdoors with her dog Odie. They enjoy biking, hiking, kayaking, and backpacking together all year long!

Diahann Polege-Aulotte

Project Manager, Homelessness Integrated Solutions

Diahann is the Project Manager for Homelessness Integrated Solutions. She graduated from Grant MacEwan University with a Bachelor of Applied Human Services Administration and more recently obtained a Master of Leadership from the University of Guelph. Diahann has 30 years’ experience in the Human Services field which has ignited a passion for advocating and supporting those in need. Her previous experiences have given her the knowledge to create safe spaces, use a trauma informed lens and acknowledge that one’s success is an individual’s choice.

Diahann lives on Fishing Lake Metis Settlement with her family. She thrives being with her friends and family and is learning to have free time.

Joleen Chivas

Financial Claims Analyst

Joleen brings to RDN a passion for developing new plans and strategies to ensure smooth operations and transitions within her position as a Financial Claims Analyst. Her inspiration for working within communities in the non-profit sector comes from her young son who has behavior challenges, which continues to push Joleen to create awareness of the limitations of certain programs and streams of funding, including the advocacy potential that exists in these areas. Here at RDN, her aim is to continue to make a difference, and to be a part of a lasting impact.

In her spare time, Joleen volunteers with Infinite Woofs, a local animal rescue, is the chair of her son’s school council, and treasurer of the fundraising committee in her community to build a new playground this summer! She also adores anything Disney!

Rural Immigration

Jayde Roche

Director, Rural Immigration / Acting Director, Operations

Jayde Roche is the Director of Rural Immigration and the Acting Director of Operations with RDN and uses her experience in community-based research to manage projects focused on supporting newcomers in rural areas. Jayde has co-faciliated intercultural competency and anti-discrimination trainings. Most recently she worked on delivering a number of anti-racism webinars to viewers from across Canada.  

She first joined the RDN as the Project Manager for Network Development and successfully launched the CARRHH National Network prior to starting the Rural Immigration Initiative.

Jayde holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Alberta with a double major in Anthropology and Latin American Studies. She also holds a certificate in community engagement and service learning as well as international learning. Currently she is pursuing her Master of Arts in Community Engagement. In her spare time, Jayde enjoys visiting new restaurants, listening to audiobooks and walks with her dog.

Elnaz Aliasl

Program Manager, Rural Immigration

Elnaz works as a Program Manager for our Rural Immigration team with RDN. Her keen knowledge in Design, Social Issues, and Research helps her to develop design guidelines to enhance mental health in affordable housing. Her focus has been on creating socially sustainable communities by understanding user groups' expectations and needs.

Elnaz holds a Master of Design from the University of Alberta, and a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Tabriz. She also has a certificate in Innovation in the Social Sector. During her time at the university, she volunteered as VP with Health and Wellness Movement Student Group, and as a Judge in the Festival of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities(FUCRA).

During her spare time, Elnaz enjoys photography, watching movies, and trying new recipes.

Elaine Flores

Project Manager & Evaluations Coordinator

Elaine works as a Project Manager & Evaluations Coordinator for RDN’s Rural Immigration initiative. Her previous experience in microfinance, microentrepreneurship, and improving financial literacy for the Philippines’ rural and urban poor is an invaluable addition to the Rural Immigration team.

Elaine holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Development Studies from the Ateneo de Manila University. She received the best undergraduate thesis award for her study on the impacts of micro lending to clients of a microfinance institution in Quezon City: Metro Manila’s largest city (2.1 million in 2000).

In her spare time, Elaine enjoys spending time with her family, watching shows on Netflix, and looking for new recipes to cook or bake.

Soheila Homayed

Project Manager, Immigration

Soheila is our Project Manager for the Rural Immigration team. As an experienced settlement worker, Soheila has helped families from around the world integrate into their new community and workplaces, while promoting diversity and inclusion across Northern Ontario. She is a Certified Intercultural Competency Trainer and holds a Bachelor of Arts in International Development and Globalization from the University of Ottawa, with a minor in Social Sciences of Health.

Rural Health & Wellness

Linda Bernicki

Director, Rural Health and Wellness

Linda has been leading community change and developing coordinated community responses in the areas of homelessness, the housing spectrum, poverty reduction, domestic violence, and Indigenous engagement for several years.

Linda’s certifications in Community Development, Economics of Social Change, Anti-Racism and Conflict Resolution have supported her ability to identify approaches and design community engagement processes for difficult conversations.  Linda has found these conversations essential to building a solid foundation for improving quality of life and overall wellness for the most vulnerable.

Linda has been honored to learn from many Elders and Knowledge Keepers along with the opportunity to participate in the Indigenous Canada Certificate.  These leanings have inspired her commitment and ability to lead stakeholder engagement though the understanding and importance of Reconciliation. Linda utilizes system integration that is based on the TRC recommendations, the rights-based approach, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

During her spare time, Linda enjoys spending time with her young adult children, walking her dog, and cooking new dishes.

Mary McGuire

Project Manager

Mary is the project manager of the Awareness Builds Connection in Dementia Friendly Communities (ABCD) project and the Olds Alberta Age-Friendly You Know Me campaign. She graduated from MacEwan University’s Social Work program and is currently working toward her Bachelor of Professional Arts (Human Services) at Athabasca University. Mary is passionate about supporting rural communities in becoming dementia-inclusive and age-friendly.  

Mary has worked in the not-for-profit sector for over ten years and is experienced in program development, community engagement, dementia inclusivity, gender-based violence issues, crisis intervention, and 2SLGBTQIA+ advocacy. Guided by a strength-based, anti-oppressive perspective, she strives to analyze societal issues through the lens of how social identities and systems intersect. Mary volunteers with a local diversity committee and with a national organization focused on supporting those who have experienced domestic and economic abuse. Her spare time is mostly focused on spending time with her spouse, three dogs, and ten fish.

Emika Peterson

Evaluation and Project Assistant, ABCD Initiative

Emika works as an Evaluation and Project Assistant for the Awareness Builds Connection In Dementia Friendly Communities project with RDN. She is excited to be a part of this project in addressing the stigma and raising awareness of dementia in rural communities. Emika recently moved to Edmonton from Vancouver, and she is currently completing her Master of Science degree in Occupational Therapy at the University of Alberta. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Health Sciences from Simon Fraser University, where she became passionate about addressing health inequities, taking a holistic approach to health, and exploring health policies and their impacts. In her spare time, Emika enjoys hiking, camping, going to the gym, and skiing/snowboarding.

Erin Dickinson

Evaluation and Project Assistant, ABCD Initiative

Erin is RDN’s Evaluation & Project Assistant for the ABCD Initiative. She is a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS) with a bachelor’s degree in Therapeutic Recreation from the University of Lethbridge. Her great passion is supporting and working with those who live with dementia and their caregivers, previously working in long term care and day program settings. She is excited to continue in this work in a new setting.  

Erin grew up on a small farm just southeast of Edmonton and continues to farm with her husband. She enjoys spending time with family and friends. Erin is also known to hit the roller derby track and a few players in her spare time.

Emele Neufeld

Indigenous Liaison

Champion male traditional dancer hailing from the east coast, Emele is a member of the Mi'kMaq peoples of Chapel Island Potlotek. He comes from the Moose clan of Marshall’s that gave him his love of the Mowi’omi or pow-wow that shaped his culture and world views. Emele has been an Indigenous ambassador since the age 7- knowing his mission at the age of 5 - making him the ultimate fit for his role as Indigenous Liaison where he will be informing RDN on the history and narrative of Indigenous peoples, and relating this to our work.

With his degree in Child & Youth Care from Grant Macewan University, Emele developed his strength based developmental approach to people. The theoretical developmental knowledge gained, informed a more in depth understanding of barriers inhibiting Indiginous peoples through intergenerational trauma. Emele aspires to connect the stories of Indigenous peoples to the actions we take, and hopes to create healing within communities, and to share this narrative.

Emele enjoys narrative based role playing games such as D&D for their therapeutic benefits, and cooking for friends & family with his 10+ years experience as a professional cook. His favorite meals to cook include: pasta, homemade ravioli and focaccia bread with jalapeno.

Justin Reinke

Project Assistant, Rural Health and Wellness

Justin works as a Project Assistant for the Health and Wellness portfolio at RDN. He’s involved in many projects for various initiatives performing tasks like report writing and proof-reading, policy development, data analysis and visualization, and much more! Justin has lived most of his life in rural Alberta but currently lives in Edmonton. He also lived in Germany for 2 years. Justin earned a B.Sc. in Biology from the University of Alberta, in addition to a Certificate in Interdisciplinary Leadership Studies from the Peter Lougheed Leadership College. During COVID, he attended a Junior Data Analyst Program from NPower Canada where he learned how to utilize Python, SQL, and other tools to perform data analysis and work as a Data Analyst. He earned an IBM Data Analyst Professional Certificate and a Microsoft Azure Fundamentals Certificate. Justin also has a background in community organizing, equity advocacy, and event organization. In his spare time, Justin enjoys volunteering, playing video games, spending quality time with his rabbit, and watching horror movies.

Kasheen Helstrom

Project Assistant, Rural Health and Wellness

Kash Helstrom works with RDN’s Rural Health & Wellness Initiative team as a Project Assistant. Kash has a formal fine arts/art history background but expanded into museum studies, program management, and strategic operations. In addition, she has worked in the not-for-profit sector for over five years in various capacities. She is excited to apply her passion for mental health, supporting rural communities, and providing assistance to those in need to the initiative.

Kash is active within the arts community in her spare time, exploring Alberta’s beautiful backyard and pursuing further professional development.


Conner Platten

Program Manager, Agri-Foods Initiative

Conner is the Program Manager of the Agri-Food Initiative with RDN. She began her studies in Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Alberta and switched lanes to Agricultural Business Management after realizing that food starts from the ground up. She is passionate about empowering food producers and entrepreneurs to strengthen the Agri-Food Sector in Canada.

Conner is originally from Edmonton, Alberta and is currently living in Revelstoke, BC. She is passionate about community involvement and volunteers for the Revelstoke Local Food Initiative, the community gardens, and a number of arts and culture events. In her spare time, Conner enjoys skiing, mountain biking, and gardening in her mountain town.

Individual Projects

Sarah Sereda

Project Coordinator, Shelter Pulse

Sarah is the Project Coordinator for the Shelter Pulse Project. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences from MacEwan University. She has a passion for environmental conservation and all things social and environmentally sustainable. Sarah has been with RDN since 2020, transitioning from administrative, part-time roles to a full time member of the team after completing her degree.

Sarah is an animal lover and bird fanatic who can tell you everything you need to know about Canadian bird species! In her spare time she loves to cross-stitch, play video games, and spend time in the river valley with her dog.

Daniela Seiferling

Project Manager, Work Integrated Learning

Daniela is the Project Manager of the Work Integrated Learning Initiative with RDN. She graduated from the University of Alberta with a Bachelor of Arts (Distinction) in Anthropology and is passionate about human history and culture. Daniela is a champion of volunteerism and how it enhances community. She’s excited to lead this new project, raise awareness of the benefits for work integrated learning, and connect post-secondary students to opportunities across Canada.  

Daniela volunteers as an online anthropology tutor and historical document transcriber.  Her volunteer and professional interests allow her to continue a love of life-long learning and community engagement. In her personal life, Daniela enjoys sorting people into their Hogwarts houses, writing short stories, and experimenting with recipes.

Hayley Cressall

Project Manager, Shelter Pulse

Hayley is the Project Manager for the Shelter Pulse project. They hold a Master of Arts in Gender, Violence and Conflict from the University of Sussex and completed their undergrad in International Development and Conflict Resolution at the University of Winnipeg. Hayley has experience working with a variety of stakeholders in multicultural settings both in Canada and across this beautiful and vast world. They are passionate about creating evidence-based and trauma-informed policies, practices and programs for addressing gender-based violence.

Hayley is a dog mom, coffee lover and enjoys getting lost in a good book. You can often find them spending time with their dogs, at the park with their nephews and staying up way too late playing board games with friends. In the winter you will find them at the curling rink or arena playing ringette. In the summer they enjoy spending time at their family cabin and going outdoors as much as possible.