MELINDA AHARONI, M.S., OTR/L
Clinical Director, Co-Owner
Mindy is a certified and licensed occupational therapist with over 25 years of experience. She received her post professional Master’s degree in occupational therapy at the University of Illinois, Chicago. She is a certified early intervention provider and evaluator for the state of Illinois.
Mindy has worked with infants through young adults in a variety of settings including hospital based outpatient programs, schools, the Illinois Early Intervention System and private clinical settings. Mindy’s commitment to providing the most effective treatment for children inspired her to form Kick Start. She currently lives in the northern suburbs of Chicago with her husband, three teenage children, and two dogs.
Mindy is SIPT® certified, has a certificate in DIR®/Floortime®,is a Certified Educator of Infant Massage through IMUSA, and has received extensive training in supplemental treatment approaches including NDT®, TAMO®, SOS®, Sensory Integration, Beckman Oral Motor Assessment and Intervention, Therapeutic Taping and a variety of listening programs including Therapeutic Listening®, Samonas®, AIT®, and Integrated Listening Systems®.
She has extensive experience treating children with a variety of diagnoses and working as part of a multi-disciplinary team developing comprehensive treatment programs integrating the family’s priorities with the identified developmental needs of the child.
ESTHER WEISZ, M.S., OTR/L
Clinical Director, Co-Owner
Esther is a certified and licensed occupational therapist with over 20 years of experience. She received her Master’s degree in occupational therapy at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
She is a certified early intervention evaluator and provider for the state of Illinois. Esther has worked with infants through school aged children in a variety of settings including hospital inpatient and outpatient, the Illinois Early Intervention System, schools and private clinics. The formation of Kick Start is the realization of a dream to provide the highest quality, innovative treatment to children, and continued education and training for therapists. She currently lives in Chicago with her husband and three children.
Esther is SIPT® certified and has received extensive training in many treatment approaches including DIR®/Floortime®, NDT®, Therapeutic Listening®, Kinesio-taping, and Sensory Integration. She has experience working with children with a variety of diagnoses as well as working closely with parents to assess and develop treatment strategies to help regulate their children and increase functional performance. Esther has worked intensely over the years collaborating with outside team members and as part of in house multi-disciplinary teams to ensure comprehensive treatment planning for her clients and families.
ERIKA LARSON, M.ED., DT
Clinical Director, Co-Owner
Erika Larson, holds a Master’s degree in Special Education, a Bachelor’s degree in Communication and Theatre Studies and is a Developmental Therapist.
She has an advanced certificate in DIR/Floortime, is a Certified PLAY Project Consultant In Training. Erika has co-founded the National Pediatric Developmental Differences Forum. She has been working with families for the past 20 years and is often asked to consult with parents around the topics of development, education and best parenting practices. She specializes in helping children on the autism spectrum, those with ADHD, developmental delays and general anxiety and depression.
Also a mom of two precocious boys, Erika is a true “problem solver” and adores helping parents find solutions so that “every day can be a good day.” Originally trained as an actor, Erika has taken her passion for performing and transformed it into a passion for play. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling, gardening, tending for 2 dogs and 6 chickens, and killing it at karaoke.
AMANDA DEANGELES, M.S., DT
Preschool Program Director
Amanda holds a Master’s of science degree in early childhood education from the Erikson Institute in Chicago and has an Illinois Professional Educator License for teaching endorsed in early childhood education with special education approval. She is also a credentialed Developmental Therapist in the state of Illinois.
Amanda has over seven years of clinical experience including that of leading therapeutic preschool and transitional kindergarten programs as well as in home and community schools. Amanda has completed trainings in the the DIR/Floortime methodology through ICDL and the Profectum Academy which is reflected in her philosophy of teaching and practice. Amanda believes in a developmentally appropriate approach to learning including differentiation of instruction, accounting for individual profiles, and collaborating with therapists for a team approach. Amanda also believes it’s the “process not that product” to promote meaningful and engaging experiences for each kiddo.
Amanda is excited to be a part of such a knowledgeable, dedicated team at Kickstart! In addition to offering 1:1 Developmental Therapy, she also leads our Therapeutic Preschool programming and many of our Social Groups. In her free time, Amanda enjoys traveling and spending time at home with her five chickens!
CLARE WALSH, M.S., OTR/L
Director of Occupational Therapy
Clare is a certified licensed occupational therapist in the state of Illinois. She received her Master’s degree in Occupational Therapy from Rush University, and her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Loyola University Chicago.
She has extensive experience working with the pediatric population in a clinic and therapeutic school environment as well as early intervention and school-based settings. She has worked with children aged 2 to 10 in addition to young adults with a variety of developmental differences including Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down’s Syndrome, dyspraxia, feeding disorders, genetic disorders, and social emotional challenges. Her interests include Sensory Integration, reflex integration, Handwriting Without Tears, DIR/Floortime, and feeding therapy. Clare is passionate about helping children reach their full potential and supporting their confidence in their natural contexts. She enjoys discovering what motivates each child and finding innovative ways to support their participation in meaningful play, peer relationships, and functional activities. She believes that a fun, inter professional, and family-centered environment can best promote volition and growth in each child’s development.
Clare is excited to be a part of the Kick Start team and support children in both 1:1 and group environments. In her free time, Clare enjoys riding her bike, spending time with family and friends, and outdoor adventures.
NATALIE NOTARO, B.S., DT
Natalie has a Bachelor's degree in Human Development and Family Science from Illinois State University. Natalie is trained in the Handle with Care Program, Developmental Assessment of Young Children (DAYC) and Screening Tool for Autism in toddlers (STAT). She is also a credentialed Developmental Therapist in the state of Illinois.
Natalie’s career focus has been on working with toddlers, school-aged children, and young adults. She has experience working in a pediatric clinic, in-home therapy, and a preschool setting. Her areas of interest include Sensory Integration, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down Syndrome, and Social Emotional challenges. Natalie is passionate about establishing relationships with children and their families to help support their strengths and challenges. Natalie enjoys integrating skills through a play-based, child-directed approach, while creating a fun and creative environment.
In her free time, Natalie likes to travel, spend time with her friends and family and explore the outdoors.
MARI PAGONE, M.A., CCC-SLP
Speech Language Pathologist
Mari Pagone M.A. CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist, and Mom of three children living in the northern suburbs of Chicago. She has worked with children and families impacted by Autism, ADHD and learning challenges for over 20 years. As a DIR certified play therapist, she has shared her passion for learning through guided play as a guest lecturer at Northwestern University, editor of the Affect Based Language Curriculum, President of the Alliance for Early Childhood, consultant to local school districts and as an advocate for her clients.
NEHAMA MORTON, MSW, LCSW
Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Nehama Morton is a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) with over 20 years of experience as a therapist working with children and adolescents. She was born and raised in Israel and has been living in Evanston for the past 25 years with her husband and three grown children. She earned a BSW from the Jane Addams School of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a MSW from Loyola University. She received additional training in the Developmental, Individual-differences, & Relationship-based model (DIR®) and earned a coaching certification in CTI Coaching.
Her career focus has been on children, young adults, and their parents who were struggling with variety of issues. In her practice, she has helped children and families deal with emotional difficulties, ADD/ADHD, executive function management, and other cognitive disabilities and behavioral issues. She has practiced in a pediatric occupational clinic and has used the DIR® model with at-risk youth and adolescents. Her specialty is working closely with the parents and teachers of children on the autism spectrum. Nehama's extensive experience with high risk adolescents in school settings, clinics, and private practice led her to co-found Our House, a group home for homeless youth in Evanston. She is currently an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Social Work at Northeastern Illinois University.
Nehama's work is grounded in her belief that the therapist's job is to support parents and children with effective tools so that together they can live healthy and productive lives.
CARLEIGH VANDETTA-SMITHERMAN, OTD, OTR/L, M.A.
Carleigh is a registered and licensed occupational therapist in the state of Illinois. She received her Doctoral Degree in Occupational Therapy and Master’s Degree in Medical Anthropology from Creighton University and her Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign. She has experience in working with children with social/emotional difficulties; sensory processing disorder; Autism Spectrum Disorder; intellectual disability; Down’s Syndrome and other trisomy conditions. She is passionate about working with children of all ages and their families in efforts to achieve an improved quality of life through a play-based and child-led approach. She has taken continuing education courses focusing on sensory integration, DIR®, and Trauma-Informed Care and utilizes this information to help guide her therapeutic approach in working with each of her kiddos and their families.
KATHY LORD, OTR/L, HOLISTIC NUTRITION
Kathleen (Kathy) Lord is an occupational therapist with over 30 years of clinical experience, and a holistic nutritionist, blending the two specialty fields in the treatment of children with developmental differences. (A very recent addition to Kick Start,) she is a California native and has previously worked in rehabilitation settings, state and county programs, NICU, school-based settings, and private home-based services throughout her career, which has also included Hippotherapy.
Kathy’s clinical specialties include Sensory Processing, Vision Processing, D.I.R./Floortime, Infant Massage, Therapeutic Listening/Integrated Listening Systems (iLs), Safe and Sound Protocol, Interactive Metronome -Clinic and Home-based, Yoga for kids, Kinesio-taping, Brain Gym, Oral-Motor-Feeding, S.O.S. Approach to Feeding, Pediatric Weight Loss and Nutritional Consultations.
SEEMA CHOUDHURY, M.S., CCC-SLP
Speech Language Pathologist
Seema is a licensed speech-language pathologist who received her Master of Science in Speech, Language, and Learning from Northwestern University and her Bachelor of Science in Speech & Hearing Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
She has experience with working with children with receptive and expressive language disorder, articulation and phonological processing disorders, autism, apraxia, alternative and augmentative communication devices, pragmatic language disorders, and pre-literacy concerns. She also has experience in working within a multidisciplinary team and passionately believes in working with different professionals and parents to provide individualized, holistic care to maximize a child’s growth. Outside of work, Seema enjoys trying out new restaurants, traveling, spending time with family and friends, and cooking and baking.
Group Lead Therapist
Anne has been working with children in many different settings for sixteen years. She has extensive experience working with Autism Spectrum Disorder having worked in a Therapeutic Day School for the last nine years.
Anne embraces the DIR model bringing a relationship based approach to her clients. Anne believes that utilizing play along with regulation and engagement is key to a successful therapeutic process.
In her free time Anne enjoys spending time with her family, playing with her two dogs, traveling, and golf.
LIZHIRA ORELLANA CEBRERO, COTA
Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant
Lizhira (Liz) is a certified and licensed occupational therapist assistant (COTA). She earned her Associates of Applied Science degree in Occupational Therapy Assistant at Fox College and her bachelor’s degree in Rehabilitation Services with a minor in Disability and Human Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).
Liz has experience in different settings including hospital inpatient, schools, and early intervention. She has worked with children of different ages and diagnosis. Her goal is to support children and achieve their fullest potential through child led play. She enjoys working with a multidisciplinary team along with parents to find new ways to provide the best support for a child’s development.
In her free time Liz enjoys traveling, reading, and spending time with family and friends.
DAMEN WELLEN, LCSW
Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Damen is a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) with over seven years of experience as a therapist working with children, adolescents, teenagers and adults and has practiced in case management, hospital, school and outpatient therapy settings. She earned her Masters degree in Social Work from Adelphi University in New York and her Bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University.
As a clinician, Damen is devoted to learning about her clients and helping them work towards their individual goals using professional knowledge and creativity. She is a team player and has extensive experience working with schools and advocating for IEP, 504 plans and specific resources needed to help her clients be successful in the school setting.
Her career focus is on children from preschool age through adulthood and families struggling with a variety of issues, including emotional difficulties, ADD/ADHD, executive function management, and other cognitive disabilities and behavioral issues.
She has a particular clinical interest in working with young children, building self-esteem and helping with guidance through play therapy. She aims to bring patience and understanding into all therapy sessions. Damen is passionate about her work and strives towards supporting her clients in feeling safe, valued, and empowered. When not at work, Damen loves to spend time with her three children, ages three, nine and twelve.
KRISTEN BRAMAN, M.S., CF-SLP
Speech Language Pathologist - Clinical Fellow
Kristen recently entered the field of speech and language pathology following many years working in education and mental health. She graduated from Northwestern University with a Masters is Speech, Language, and Learning, where she gained broad clinical experience with adult and pediatric populations in person and via teletherapy. Kristen has evaluated and treated patients and students ranging in age from 1-90 years, with special interests in acquired and neurodevelopmental disabilities, learning differences, and those with social and pragmatic language challenges. Kristen is committed to building meaningful relationships with little learners and their families to foster a collaborative, positive therapeutic experience for everyone.
Kristen is excited to be a part of Kick Start’s interdisciplinary model and looking forward using her professional and academic background to build confident communicators and continue to contribute to the unfolding of engaged, curious and motivated little ones. When not at Kick Start, Kristen enjoys exploring libraries and farmers’ markets in the Northwest suburbs with her husband and dog, traveling to see family in Michigan, and dreaming about future travels beyond the Midwest.
KATE WETTERGREN, M.S, M.A.T., OTD, OTR/L
Kate is a certified and licensed occupational therapist in Illinois. She received her Doctorate in occupational therapy at Midwestern University, her Master’s in Science degree from Benedictine University, and her Master’s in Teaching from Olivet Nazarene University.
While serving as an elementary teacher at an international school in Europe, Kate gained experience working with kids of all ages who came from many countries around the world with diverse backgrounds and diverse needs. As a former exercise physiologist and coach, Kate has also had experience setting up programming in multiple community and clinical settings for the pediatric population. As a child Kate never had a good understanding of her own sensory system and why her body had feelings that were different than others. Now she is passionate about helping support kids and their families in their sensory journeys.
Kate lives with her husband, three children, two dogs, two cats, two chinchillas, a hedgehog and a handful of fish (Yep. Lots of animals!) In her spare time, she enjoys teaching Zumba and traveling!
JESSICA JAROSZ, M.S, OTD, OTR/L
Jessie is a licensed occupational therapist with her Doctor of Occupational Therapy from Rush University and her Bachelor of Science in Rehabilitation Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Jessie has clinical experience with the pediatric population in both outpatient and community-based settings and recently completed her Doctoral Capstone at a Chicago-based non-profit organization to increase digital literacy skills for adolescents and young adults with Down syndrome. While at Kick Start, Jessie is excited to play with kids of all ages and abilities to facilitate increased participation and self-determination in fun and meaningful activities.
In her free time, Jessie enjoys spending time with her family and friends, cooking new recipes, playing tennis, and watching football.
TALIA ZIMMERMAN, MS, OTD, OTR/L
Talia is a licensed occupational therapist who graduated from Rush University with her Doctorate in Occupational Therapy and received her Bachelor’s of Science in Community Health with a concentration in Rehabilitation Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Talia has clinical experience in both hospital inpatient rehabilitation and pediatric outpatient services. She has worked with children ages 7 months to 21 years to facilitate participation in meaningful occupations.
Talia’s Doctoral Capstone focused on increasing knowledge regarding the adaptive behavior skills of children enrolled in a preschool-readiness program at an outpatient clinic.
Talia is excited to be a part of the Kick Start team in order to support children in meaningful occupational engagement in both individual and group sessions! When not at Kickstart, Talia loves spending time with her family, cooking, and baking.
ERIN VELEZ, MSW, LCSW
Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Erin is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) earning her Masters Degree in Social Work from Loyola University Chicago. She also holds a second Masters Degree in Early Childhood Education Administration from National Louis University. Combined, she has over 15 years experience working with children and adolescents in multiple different settings.
Prior to becoming a Clinical Social Worker, she worked as the head early childhood education teacher for 8 years, mostly consisting of the Pre-K and Kindergarten classrooms. She also has experience working with children and youth in the foster care system assisting with vocational, independence and enrolling their children into Head Start Programs. Most recently, she worked as a medical social worker in a pediatric emergency room focusing on clients impacted by trauma, chronic illnesses and assessing risks of safety.
She holds a certification as a Child and Adolescent Trauma Professional (CATP) as well as a certification in Crisis Prevention and Intervention from the Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI). She has also undergone extensive training in attachment-based play therapy interventions to treat trauma, emotional dysregulation and behavioral challenges. She also demonstrates her unwavering commitment to mental health by being committee members for both the Illinois Suicide Prevention Alliance and the National Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute for teen mental health prevention.
Her number one goal is to provide a safe, nurturing and structured space for your child to begin or continue their journey. She uses many therapeutic approaches and tools tailored to each individual client to aid them in healing, meeting their potential, identifying negative cognitions, limiting unwanted behaviors, and discovering their self-worth.
EILEEN FARMER, MS, CCC-SLP
Speech Language Pathologist
Eileen is a licensed speech-language pathologist who received her Master of Science in Speech-Language Pathology from University of Washington, and her Bachelor of Arts in English from University of Notre Dame.
She has experience in both outpatient clinics and public schools, with children ages 1 to 18. She has worked with children who have delays/disorders related to speech (including motor speech/apraxia), language, fluency, pragmatic language, and voice. Eileen believes in building relationships with clients, to have fun while making progress. She also believes in collaborating with families and other professionals to help children meet their goals.
Eileen is an Evanston native who recently moved back to Chicago after many years on the west coast. Prior to speech therapy, she worked in online advertising at Google. Now, Eileen enjoys spending time with her husband, five-year-old son, and two-year-old daughter, from whom she has learned all things Star Wars, Peppa Pig, Paw Patrol and Octonauts. Eileen loves coffee, trying new workout classes, and doing Wordle.
SUSANNAH ILSEMAN, MS, OTR/L
Susannah is a licensed occupational therapist with her Master of Science in Occupational Therapy from The University of Scranton and her Bachelor of Science in Health Sciences with a minor in Spanish from the same institution. She was a four year member of the NCAA Division III swim team, studied abroad in Bolivia, and hosted campus-wide social justice programs.
Susannah is an Early Interventionist with pediatric clinical experience in therapeutic preschool/kindergarten and outpatient settings. She has worked with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down Syndrome, Global Developmental Delay, Sensory Processing and Regulation challenges, and visual motor integration impairments. She is passionate about creating therapeutic environments where children and families feel respected and cared for. She is creative and integrates meaningful activities to help children reach their goals and increase independence in everyday living spaces.
Susannah is excited to serve the Kick Start Community! In her free time, she enjoys fellowship with family and friends, road trips, reading WWII era novels, and spending time in nature.
Sarah received her bachelor's degree in Human Development and Family Studies from Illinois State University. She has experience working with children ages infant-6 years of age. She has worked as a behavior therapist doing in-home therapies and worked in a preschool setting. She was a lead preschool teacher for 6 years before working as the Assistant Director. She is excited to pursue a masters degree in Social Work in the futre. In her free time, she enjoys being with family and friends and playing with her two dogs.