Our Board of Directors

Berre Burch, President

Berre Burch, a native Arkansan, is the Director of Project LAST at the
Children’s Bureau of New Orleans, where she leads a program that
provides no-cost, high quality mental health services to children and
adolescents in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes. She is the proud mom of Wren (Garden Room) and Gus (Rabbit Burrow). Her son Elliott attended Abeona House in 2012, before the family relocated to Maryland. Berre earned a PhD in school psychology at Tulane in 2014. She previously received a Master’s degree in art therapy from George Washington University and a bachelor’s degree from Hendrix College.

Mercedes Montagnes, Vice President

Executive Director of the Promise of Justice Initiative

Mercedes Montagnes is the Executive Director of the Promise of Justice Initiative. Mercedes was born and raised in Toronto, Canada and first moved to New York City in August of 2001. A passion for criminal justice reform and love first brought Mercedes to New Orleans in 2007. After graduating from law school and clerking, Mercedes made her permanent home here in 2012. Since then, she has been working with the vibrant community of justice seekers in Louisiana. Mercedes is the proud mother of Hugo in the Fish Cove and is grateful every day for the love he gets at school.

Emmy O’Dwyer, Secretary

Emmy O’Dwyer, M.Ed., is the proud daughter of first generation immigrants from Honduras. She was born and raised in New Orleans and was the first in her family to graduate from college. Emmy has worked in the field of education for the last 20 years as a teacher, school administrator, and early childhood and nonprofit founding director, working with children from birth through adulthood.  She is grounded by the belief that communities will thrive when places of learning cultivate curiosity, critical thinking, and connection with children. 

Emmy opened the first new early learning center in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina wiped out 80% of those programs. She has participated in the workgroup that led to a $4.75 million New Orleans investment in early childhood as well as the $22 million Children’s Museum steering committee. Her leadership in early childhood education earned her a commendation from the (former) mayor of New Orleans as well as national recognition as a 2014 W.K. Kellogg Foundation Community Leadership Network fellow. 

In her current capacity at the Louisiana Department of Education, Emmy serves as the Director of Early Childhood Workforce Development and Innovation on the Early Childhood Strategy team. Her portfolio includes all early learning center quality improvement and workforce development efforts for the state of Louisiana. This includes the shared services strategy, site improvement efforts, and oversight of the state’s six Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies. Emmy developed the Louisiana Early Leaders Academy that placed second in a Harvard Innovation Challenge and launched in the Fall of 2019.  She was most recently named a Learning Sciences Exchange fellow by New America, a think tank based in Washington D.C. 

Kenn Barnes

Born in Baton Rouge but relocated to New Orleans, Kenn Barnes, Jr. serves as Special Counsel- Criminal Justice to the Louisiana Supreme Court. In this capacity Mr. Barnes has assisted in the use of best practices and implementation of the Laura and John Arnold Public Safety Assessment risk assessment tool in Orleans Parish to assist judges during the setting of a bond by providing information on an accused’s likelihood of new criminal activity while on bond and likelihood of failure to appear. Additional duties of Mr. Barnes include assisting with the Court’s reentry court, drug court, mental health court and other specialty court programs across Louisiana, serving as liaison between the Louisiana Supreme Court and the Felony Class System Task Force, Louisiana Public Defender Board, and Louisiana State Law Institute, and has recently been appointed by Governor John Bel Edwards to the Justice Reinvestment Implementation Oversight Council.  

In addition to his work at the Louisiana Supreme Court, Kenn is an initiate and member of the Nu Psi Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, Fraternity Inc., the American Bar Association, National Bar Association, New Orleans Bar Association, Gala chair and member of the Greater New Orleans Louis A. Martinet Society, and is a member of the Louisiana State Bar Association Diversity Committee. Kenn also serves his community as a member of the Louisiana New Leader’s Council Advisory Board, and board member of the New Orleans Abeona House Child Discovery Center. In Kenn’s free time, he enjoys strolling the French Quarter with his wife, meeting new people and animals, and volunteer coaching high school wrestling.

Cynthia Bankston

Audit Manager at Postlethewaite & Netterville

Cynthia recently joined the board in June 2018 as the treasurer. Cynthia works closely with the board and executive director to monitor the budget and report and help maintain the fiscal health of Abeona House.

Cynthia is a native of Washington Parish, Louisiana and graduated from Mt. Hermon High School. Cynthia earned her bachelor’s degree in accounting and minor in professional writing from Southeastern Louisiana University. Cynthia has worked as an auditor for Postlethwaite and Netterville since 2014. She holds various industry certifications such as Certified Public Accountant and Certified Fraud Examiner which equip her to serve a wide range of clients such as local governmental entities, non-profits, and for profit companies.

Cynthia resides in Covington with her husband of seven years and dog, Google. Cynthia enjoys mastering excel formulas and spending time with her six nieces and nephews in her free time.

Shannon Brown 

Shannon Brown is a certified PreK – 3rd Grade Educator with degrees in social work and public health. She began her Early Childhood career in Vietnam, where she worked in international kindergartens and bilingual preschools as a teacher, curriculum writer, and academic director. She moved to New Orleans in 2018 and currently teaches PreK at Homer A. Plessy Community School in the Treme. She wanted to join the Abeona House Board to lend content knowledge and advocate for teacher voices. 

John Alford

As the Chief Network Growth Officer John manages the team of Relationship Managers at the KIPP Foundation. Additionally, John directly supports a portfolio of regions including New Orleans, Memphis and Delta. Prior to returning to KIPP, John worked at the New York City Department of Education where he served as Senior Director in the New Schools office, training founding and turnaround principals as a key strategy in the District’s turnaround effort.

Prior to that, John was the Founder, CEO and middle school principal at Langston Hughes Academy Charter School in New Orleans. John helped establish New Schools for New Orleans after Hurricane
Katrina and taught fifth grade math at KIPP Ujima Village Academy. John spent four years with the KIPP Foundation during its founding years, first as a Trailblazer and later as the National Director of the
Trailblazing team. John has a B.S. in Industrial Engineering from NC A&T State and an MBA from Harvard Business School. John is married to Mary Alford and is the proud parent of Bali (Rabbit Burrow).

Jessica Tolbert

Director of Talent Recruitment, Collegiate Academies

Jessica is an Ohio native and graduate of The Ohio State University (B.A – History and Spanish) and University of Kansas (M.Ed.- Curriculum & Instruction). Jessica taught lower elementary in the Mississippi Delta and New Orleans for seven years while also serving as a math coach, Spanish translator and an independent contractor for math curriculum reviews. Currently, Jessica serves as the Director of Talent Recruitment for Collegiate Academies, recruiting the best teachers for high school students in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. 
Jessica lives in New Orleans with her fiance, Justin,  and can always be found with a good book or podcast and indulging in the food and community that has made New Orleans her forever home.

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