Leadership team

Together, our leaders are realizing their vision for innovative early education in Chicago and the surrounding area.

Kelly Lambrinatos

Kelly Lambrinatos

Co-Founder & Executive Director, VOCEL

I’m passionate about empowering young children, knowing the power and long-term impact of an exceptional early childhood education.

A passionate education advocate, Kelly leads VOCEL as Executive Director. Kelly co-founded VOCEL in 2013 with Jesse Ilhardt after a career that included teaching 1st & 2nd grade, coaching teachers and managing a team of educational coaches at Teach For America in Chicago. Kelly believes deeply in the potential of each child and works daily to ensure that a child’s zip code is not the determinant of his or her educational opportunity and trajectory. At VOCEL, Kelly leads the organization’s strategy and growth, board of directors and private philanthropy efforts. Kelly was a Hunt Leadership Scholar at SMU, where she earned her BA in Communications and English. Currently part of the inaugural cohort of Neubauer Civic Scholars, Kelly is pursuing her MBA at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

Jesse Ilhardt

Co-Founder and Director of Program & Development

I fundamentally believe that all children are entitled to a quality education—that they are competent, curious learners by nature.

With nearly 10 years spent teaching and coaching teachers in the early education field, Jesse co-founded VOCEL in 2013 and serves as VOCEL’s Director of Program & Development. Even as a young child, Jesse has always loved helping others and is inspired by VOCEL’s unique approach to fostering empathy by forging authentic connections between teachers and children, teachers and parents and especially among young children themselves. Young children are the future—and everything looks more optimistic when we envision a truly connected, caring society. Jesse holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Minnesota, an MA in Early Childhood from Dominican University and is pursuing the Infant Mental Health Certificate from Erikson Institute. Jesse’s deep knowledge of early childhood has allowed her to present at the Austin Early Childhood Symposium (2016), the Collaboration for Early Childhood Symposium (2017) and the Illinois Association for Infant Mental Health Spring Seminar Series (2017). Jesse is a member of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

VOCEL team

With diverse backgrounds and interests, our team of teachers brings fresh energy and unique perspective to their work with children and families.

Ruth Alexander

Ruth Alexander

Preschool Lead Teacher

MA University of Illinois at Chicago, Instructional Leadership in Early Education & Early Childhood Special Education
Ms. Ruth loves to cook and tries to attempt at least one new recipe every week.

Nekeda Confer

Nekeda Confer

Assistant Director

BA in Arts, Entertainment & Media Management: Small Business Management & Entrepreneurship, Columbia College
Masters of Early Childhood Education, DePaul University
Ms. Nekeda loves to decorate...she can redesign any room from painting to wallpapering on any given weekend.

Deborah Estes

Deborah Estes

Food Service Worker

Associates Degree, Everest College
Ms. Deborah loves to cook (and grilling is even better!).

Jamie Huenink

Jamie Huenink

Family Support Specialist

BS in Human Development & Family Studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison
MSW Candidate, University of Southern California, expected graduation Fall 2019
Ms. Jamie loves all things food. Whether it’s trying new food, eating the same sandwich from the same restaurant or cooking, Ms. Jamie will be there.

Brittanie LaCour

Brittanie LaCour

VCPA Assistant

Bachelor of Arts in Sociology, Minor in Education Studies, DePauw University
Ms. Brittanie loves watching movies, so much so that she sometimes drops famous movie lines into conversation.

Nelly Pineda

Nelly Pineda

Assistant Teacher

Bachelors in Human Development & Learning, University of Illinois, Chicago
Ms. Nelly enjoys visiting and exploring new places with her family.

Jamie Thomas

Jamie Thomas

Director of Program & Operations

BA in Elementary Education, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Ms. Jamie is a proud mom of two and enjoys watching each of her children develop the skills they are most excited about: musical theater for one and technology for the other.

Monserrat Vazquez

Monserrat Vazquez

VCPA Bilingual Assistant

Associate of Arts, Wilbur Wright College; Bachelor of Arts in Social Work in progress, Northeastern Illinois University
Ms. Monserrat’s dream is to swim with dolphins. The only problem is that she does not know how to swim...yet!

Kinya Willaby

Kinya Willaby

VCPA Lead Teacher

MA in Early Childhood Education, Concordia University
Ms. Kinya is a proud mom and can often be found rooting for her son’s basketball and volleyball teams.