Our Board & Staff
Research Project Manager, Illinois Kids Development Study, University of Illinois
Mary Wakefield, President
Mary hails from the suburbs of Seattle, Washington and has worked and lived overseas in Italy, Turkey, and Mexico. She made her way to the midwest to attend graduate school at St. Louis University, earning a Masters of Public Health in their School of Public Health and Social Justice. She currently manages a research lab that studies environmental exposures and health outcomes for pregnant women and their children. In addition, she is very active in the Champaign-Urbana community, serving as: Vice President of the board for The Family Room; Assistant Chair for Placement Advisers (2019-2020) for the Junior League of Champaign Urbana; member of “Emerging Community Leaders Class” of 2019; and helping out parents of new babies as a volunteer with Sistering CU.
Chief Advisor, Aerospace Engineering, University of Illinois
Laura Gerhold, Vice President
Laura Gerhold is the Chief Advisor for the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Illinois. She also is a Medical Advocate for RACES, the Rape Advocacy, Counseling, and Educational Services. She is serving as the Vice President of the YWCA board. She chairs the governance committee and is a member of the marketing and development committee. Laura loves to travel and will take the opportunity to visit new cultures whenever she can. Laura’s passion to uplift women, eliminate racism and build a better community fits well within the mission of the YWCA.
Graduate Student, School of Social Work, University of Illinois
Jensy Joseph, Secretary
Jensy Joseph is currently pursuing a Master's in Social Work at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign School of Social Work. During her undergraduate degree, she had the chance to intern with the YWCA University of Illinois and soon after joined the team as a board member. She is a proud member of the marketing and development committee at the YWCA. Jensy had a wonderful opportunity to travel Europe for a study abroad program where she truly felt and witnessed the resiliency of women. Jensy has found that the mission and work of the YWCA starts with a dedicated team that embraces and supports all people in our community with real action. She has felt empowered by the YWCA to excel and stand out and that motivates her to empower others.
Humanities Professor, Parkland College
Patti VerStrat is a Professor of Humanities at Parkland College. She was raised in Michigan and spent several years in the state of Washington earning her doctorate in English (gender, literature and cultural studies) before moving to the C-U area. Her travel experiences (Europe, Central America, Vietnam, and Indonesia) have opened her eyes to the hope and urgency of connecting with other humans all over the world, as well as with those here in the USA. Her wilderness survival experiences as a physically disabled woman (the Yukon, the Rockies, the Bighorns, the Cascades) have taught her the value of solitude, resilience, and cooperation. Patti is super excited about the simple yet brilliant mission of the YWCA, and is actively involved in antiracism activities, YWCA advocacy, and the theoretical and practical work of engaging her own racial privilege.
Integrative Wellness & Life Coach, C A Better U
Bernice Dallas is the founder and Executive Director of C a Better U, a life mentoring and coaching firm. To keep in contact with potential customers and businesses, she works as a temporary employee around town. In the summer of 2019, Bernice got an opportunity to train as treepze artist. It was part of her conquer your fear tour of 2019.
When Bernice worked at Cunningham Children's Home, she got a chance to meet wonderful people who were fighting for women's rights, especially those of the underprivileged and underserved, one of those people was Denise Taylor. When Bernice founded C a Better U one of its pillars is to help their clients, particularly women, show up authentically in their lives for the betterment of themselves and the communities they serve. It was during lunch, when Denise suggested Bernice become a Board member of YWCA since empowering women aligned with her core business values. And the rest is history.
Assistant Attorney General, Illinois Attorney General's Office
Bridget Schott is an Assistant Attorney General for the Illinois Attorney General’s Office. Prior to joining the Attorney General’s Office, she worked as a prosecutor in Champaign County, focusing on serious felonies, criminal sexual assaults and felony domestic batteries and other domestically related crimes. It was there that she truly learned the resiliency of women, and became an advocate for women from all walks of life. Solidifying this for Bridget have been her two mission trips with Copper Creek Church to the Lisanjala area of Malawi in Africa, where she observed the strength and joy of women holding their families together. Bridget has found that the mission and work of the YWCA will build that same resiliency, strength and joy in the women of our community. Within the YWCA Board, Bridget serves on both the Finance committee and the Advocacy committee.
Legal Assistant, Antone, Casagrande & Adwers, P.C.
Vanessa Cheng is currently a Legal Assistant at a business immigration law firm based in metro-Detroit. She is also currently a Research Assistant for the CoronaNet Research Group, where she tracks government policy responses to COVID-19 and collects data across countries. Vanessa earned a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2020. During her undergraduate studies, she interned for the Chicago Bar Foundation's Justice Entrepreneurs Project (JEP), a legal incubator that helps new attorneys develop socially conscious law practices to service low and middle income Chicagoians.
Vanessa also got the chance to intern for the YWCA when she was a student. Upon graduating, she soon after joined the team as a board member. She is a proud member of the finance committee at the YWCA. She found her internship experience rewarding and empowering as a student. Therefore, as a board member, she is motivated to advance the YWCA's mission to empower others.
Undergraduate Student, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, University of Illinois
Sharon Abraham is currently a junior pursuing an Econometrics and Quantitative Economics degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. She is part of the Advocacy committee at YWCA as she strongly believes in standing up and providing a voice for those in need. She has previously volunteered in organizations that strive to serve marginalized communities, and has seen the effects of positive outreach firsthand and wishes to do so in the Champaign Urbana community. YWCA’s mission to empower individuals is one she strongly holds close to her heart, and seeing the positive effect their work has on communities motivates her to keep striving to give back to her community.
Andrea is unabashedly in love with the mission of “eliminating racism and empowering women.” Residing in Champaign-Urbana since 1992, and working as a professional in the nonprofit sector since 1998, she originally came to Urbana to work on a PhD in Philosophy, but was inexorably drawn to the high-stakes, lucrative world of local nonprofits. Andrea has worked on statewide healthcare advocacy, facilitated teen parenting groups, and been Vice President of Community Impact at United Way of Champaign County. Most recently she served as the Director of Programs for the Eastern Illinois Foodbank, and she continues to be passionate about hunger in the US. She proudly served as Chair of the local Human Services Council and was a founding member of the Latino Partnership of Champaign County.
Denise has over 35 years of experience working in non-profit agencies focused on community health, child development, and public education, in Chicago and in South America. She holds Master's degrees in cultural anthropology and in public health/epidemiology and has a certificate in infant mental health. Both personally and professionally, her work has been driven by a commitment to social justice from a feminist perspective. She is happy to be back in her hometown of Urbana to help disrupt racism and promote the empowerment of women.