Hermosa Beach

Regional Clinic Director

Your Regional Clinic Director is responsible for ensuring FirstSteps program integrity. She oversees all client programs, ensures your treatment team is trained and supported, interfaces with your funding agencies, and communicates with our executive team daily to ensure your child's services run smoothly and are effective.

Please feel free to contact her at any time with questions, concerns, or to discuss your child's treatment progress.

Kristen Carmi, M.A., BCBA

Kristen Carmi

Kristen Carmi joined our FirstSteps family as a Program Director in 2007. Prior to joining our team, Ms. Carmi began her work with children and adults with disabilities after earning a Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology with a second major in Theatre Arts from Towson University. Ms. Carmi sought a career that combined her passion for the arts with psychology. Under the guidance of Sally Bailey (MFA, MSW, RDT/BCT), Ms. Carmi developed self-advocacy programs for adults with disabilities in the D.C. area and facilitated social development with children and young adults through the course, "Act for Yourself: Social Skills Through Drama," through the Continuing Education Division of Montgomery College.

In 1999, she ventured from Maryland to California, where she found a new passion waiting for her in Applied Behavior Analysis. Ms. Carmi began work as a Therapeutic Instructor applying intensive behavioral strategies with children with Autism, using Discrete Trial Training, Natural Environment Training, the Picture Exchange Communication System, and Social Skills Training.

Soon after, Ms. Carmi earned her Master of Arts Degree in Psychology from California State University, Los Angeles and became a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. She presents her ongoing research at state, national and international levels, including the California Association for Behavior Analysis and the Association of Behavior Analysis. She is also a regularly invited guest lecturer at colleges and universities in the Greater Los Angeles area and has served as Adjunct Professor, teaching a graduate level practicum course at CSUN's Autism Clinic.

Working in the field of ABA for over a decade, Ms. Carmi has developed a broad range of skills and interests. Her areas of expertise and particular interest include social skills training through the use of behavioral strategies, generalization of learned skills to multiple settings, verbal behavior, and motivation in parent training and program implementation.

Ms. Carmi resides in the South Bay with her two sons. She is, at the end of every day, grateful for the opportunity to work with the most amazing children and looks forward to life-long learning within the field of Autism.

Associate Regional Clinic Director

Janine Strack, M.S., BCBA

Janine Strack

Janine Strack began her work with children diagnosed with autism at FirstSteps in 2005, after graduating with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles.  While working as an Instructor, she quickly realized she had found her lifelong career and decided to pursue a graduate degree in the field.  While continuing to work full time as a Lead Instructor at FirstSteps, she completed her Master of Science Degree in Counseling, with a specialization in ABA, from California State University, Los Angeles and, shortly thereafter, became a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. 

As a long-time member of the FirstSteps team, she has served in a variety of clinical roles ranging from providing 1:1 behavior therapy to clients in the home, school, and community settings, designing and supervising the individualized behavior intervention programs for children of a variety of ages and developmental levels, overseeing the FirstSteps intake and assessment department, and most recently, joining Kristen Carmi as Associate Regional Clinic Director in the Hermosa Beach office. 

Ms. Strack takes great pride in her work at FirstSteps, and strives to provide the most effective, comprehensive, and individualized services to her clients possible. She appreciates the importance of transforming current, relevant, and empirically validated treatment intervention findings into effective clinical practice, and has a particular interest in higher-order programming, to include perspective taking and executive functions. She is looking forward to continuing her career with FirstSteps for many years to come!

Program Directors

FirstSteps is committed to achieving the best possible outcomes for the children and families we serve. Essential to this goal is effective and ongoing program supervision provided by our Program Directors. At FirstSteps, all Program Directors have a minimum of a Master's Degree AND are Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs), with at least 5 years of behavior analytic experience with children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

As a client of FirstSteps, your child has a designated Program Director who is responsible for developing his or her individualized Treatment Plan which includes establishing clearly defined, objective, measurable, and appropriate treatment goals and ensuring you and your child's clinical team are prepared and able to implement the plan successfully. Your Program Director will educate and support your family in the Principles of Applied Behavior Analysis, therapeutic targets and strategies, and behavior management techniques to ensure proper generalization of treatment effects outside of the structured therapy setting. To further support your child's learning and generalization, consultation and collaboration with your child's school teachers and other service providers will be provided by your Program Director on an ongoing and regular basis.

Your Program Director is dedicated to ensuring your child's success as well as supporting you and your family along the way. Please feel free to contact your Program Director at any time with questions or concerns.

Christina Kowan, M.A., BCBA

Christina Kowan

In 2008 Christina Kowan had her first experience working with children diagnosed with autism. After graduating from California State University, Dominguez Hills with a degree in Psychology and a minor in Sociology, Ms. Kowan eagerly sought out knowledge on what practices produced the best results for children on the spectrum. After thoroughly researching various therapies and agencies, she was lead to ABA and joined the FirstSteps clinical team in 2009.

Ms. Kowan advanced to a Lead Instructor as she completed her Master of Arts degree in Education with an emphasis in School Counseling at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Enthusiastic about turning her passion into her life's work, Ms. Kowan promptly enrolled in Board Certified Behavior Analyst courses upon graduation. With her dedication and sound clinical skills shining through, FirstSteps promoted Ms. Kowan to a Program Director. She is currently supervising cases, implementing parent training, and assisting in mentoring FirstSteps instructors. In addition, Ms. Kowan currently facilitates two social skills groups for girls.

Ms. Kowan takes pride in working rigorously to ensure that each child's program is highly individualized to ensure its effectiveness. She enjoys developing new and creative ways to assist each child to be successful in their daily lives.

Ms. Kowan resides in the South Bay with her husband and young daughter and serves FirstSteps families living in the surrounding beach cities.

Sarah Johnson, M.S., BCBA

Sarah Johnson

Sarah Johnson was first introduced to Applied Behavior Analysis in spring of 2007 at the New England Center for Children (NECC), following completion of a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology at the University of Maryland.  The following year she accepted a relocation opportunity to help open new classrooms in NECC’s replicate school in the United Arab Emirates.  While there, having fallen in love with the powerful teaching effects of behaviorism, she completed a Master of Science Degree in Applied Behavior Analysis from Northeastern University. Ms. Johnson stayed for three years, helping to spread awareness of Autism and ABA to a new culture.  When Ms. Johnson returned, she taught in NECC’s preschool classrooms, then moved to working directly with families in the home as part of the early intensive behavioral intervention program. 

She received her BCBA in 2012 and the following spring began work at South Bay Mental Health Center as the Regional Coordinator of In Home Behavior Services.  This was a program that brought intensive behavioral therapy to children of disadvantaged families who were at risk of out-of-home placement due to behavioral challenges.  She created behavioral support plans for family-driven implementation, with a strong emphasis on parent training to improve post-involvement sustainability.  

Ms. Johnson discovered FirstSteps in 2015 and immediately knew it was a match made in heaven.  She is currently a Program Director at the Hermosa Beach office and excited to be part of such an exuberant and focused clinical team.  Her clinical interests lie in conditioned reinforcement, early intensive behavioral intervention, skill acquisition, verbal behavior, and naturalistic teaching. 

Jamie Morgan, M.S., BCBA

Jamie Morgan graduated from the University of Connecticut in 2007 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology with a minor in Sociology. For several years following, she worked at an elementary school as an aide for children with ASD, as well as students with a variety of other special needs. Ms. Morgan’s passion for working with children, along with her enthusiasm for continuous growth and knowledge, inspired her to pursue higher education. In 2012, she attained a Master’s of Science in Counselor Education, with a focus in School Counseling. While Ms. Morgan truly enjoyed and valued her experience at the elementary school in Connecticut, she decided it was time for a change. 

In 2014, Ms. Morgan traveled to southern California, where she joined the FirstSteps team as an Instructor, and later a Lead Instructor. She quickly came to admire the culture and values of FirstSteps, which sparked a desire to develop her clinical skills in the field of ABA. While taking on the position of Program Manager, she completed coursework through the Florida Institute of Technology and received her BCBA.

Ms. Morgan is thrilled to be working as a Program Director at FirstSteps. She is incredibly grateful to be involved in a company filled with such passionate, talented, and brilliant individuals. Ms. Morgan is dedicated to making a positive difference for the children and families of our community and looks forward to continued clinical and professional growth at FirstSteps.

Sarah Bolla, M.Ed.

Michelle Schmidt, M.A.

Michelle Schmidt spent much of her high school and college life volunteering and working at a local camp for children with a wide range of disabilities. Through these early experiences, she developed a passion for making a difference in children's lives. Ms. Schmidt attended the University of Colorado at Boulder where she received her undergraduate degree in Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences in 2014. During her time in Boulder, she interned at a school for children with Autism, where she was first exposed to Behavior Analysis. She also volunteered for and organized after-school activities for kids from low-income families, as well as interned at a public school in Colorado where she received her Speech Language Pathologist Assistant Certificate. 

Ms. Schmidt joined the FirstSteps team the summer after receiving her undergraduate degree as an instructor and soon after gained experience as both a Lead Instructor and Program Manager. After working at FirstSteps for almost two years, she moved to South Orange County and gained additional experience in both the school and clinical settings as a supervisor. Furthermore, she finished her Master's Degree in Early Childhood Education (ECE) at California State University, Long Beach and completed coursework at Florida Institute of Technology to help reach her future goal of becoming a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. She continues to give back to Long Beach State, serving on the Special Education Advisory Committee for the ECE Masters program, helping to disseminate knowledge of behavior analysis principles to current students. Eager to return to the FirstSteps family, Michelle returned in the summer of 2017 as a Program Manager. She believes in the FirstSteps philosophy and is highly driven to improve the lives of her clients. Ms. Schmidt has loved all the opportunities that FirstSteps has given her and appreciates being surrounded by so many educated individuals devoted to improving the lives of children with ASD.

Program Managers

Program Managers assist Program Directors in the management of their clients cases. Depending on the needs of the client, Program Managers may assist with case initiation, parent education and training, assessment and data collection/analysis, program modifications, and training and support for Lead Instructors, Instructors, and Trainees. Program Managers also provide direct intervention for their clients in the home, school, and community settings. All Program Managers hold masters degrees in psychology and/or applied behavior analysis and are Board Certified Behavior Analysts or are in the process of completing their certification as Board Certified Behavior Analysts.

Heather Bae, M.A.

Heather Bae graduated from California State University, Fullerton with a degree in Child and Adolescent Development and a minor in Psychology. As an undergraduate, Ms. Bae worked with children in a variety of settings such as public and non-public schools, as well as nonprofit organizations geared to support low-income families. She particularly enjoyed working closely with families from different backgrounds, and she learned the value of collaboration and client-specific programming.

In 2012, Ms. Bae joined the FirstSteps for Kids, Inc. As an Instructor, she strived to accurately implement intervention strategies and frequently communicated with the clinical team to effectively manage challenging behaviors. Soon after, she was promoted to Lead Instructor in 2013 and took on a leadership role, which allowed her greater freedom to develop strategies to help her clients reach their fullest potentials. As a Program Manager, she has been working to ensure that each Instructor is providing consistent, behaviorally-sound interventions to the children they serve.

Ms. Bae earned a Master of Arts in Applied Behavior Analysis with an emphasis in Autism at Ball State University. She is excited to continue her work with Instructors and assist Program Directors in providing the most effective intervention plans that meet the individual needs of children and families., as well as learning and continuing to grow within this field.

Elizabeth Chatterton, M.Ed.

Cheree Chavis

Cheree Chavis graduated Cum Laude from the University of Arizona in 2010 with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology. Ms. Chavis began her work with children with disabilities as an undergraduate while volunteering as an academic tutor for a special education department. It was then she developed her passion for working with this specific demographic. Upon graduation, she worked as a case manager for children with special needs and as an academic assistant in the special education department for a K-8 school in Arizona. It was working in a direct setting with children that nurtured Ms. Chavis' desire to work with children with autism.

In 2013 she joined the FirstSteps family. As an instructor, and with the guidance of enthusiastic and experienced lead instructors and program directors, she was promoted to lead instructor and then to Program Manager in 2017. She is currently working towards a Master's of Education in Curriculum and Instruction: Applied Behavior Analysis at Arizona State University and is eager to design and develop programs and interventions. Her strengths are Natural Environment Training, generalization, and social skills acquisition. Ms. Chavis is extremely thrilled to be a part of a company that cultivates a community of experienced and impassioned individuals.

Danielle Wagoner, M.A.

Danielle Wagoner graduated from San Diego State University in 2009 as a member of the Honors Program with a degree in Psychology. Prior to her undergraduate studies, Danielle volunteered over 100 hours with various organizations where she cultivated her passion for working with children with special needs. Following a diagnosis of Autism in her family, she was introduced to Applied Behavior Analysis and dove in, head first. She began working in the field of ABA as an Instructor during her final semester of her undergraduate program where she enjoyed working with children from diverse backgrounds in a variety of settings.

After moving home to the South Bay in 2011, she began as an Instructor with FirstSteps for Kids, Inc. and was quickly promoted to Lead Instructor in 2012. Danielle was impressed with FirstSteps’ strong clinical foundation and commitment to their clients and was able to expand and hone her own clinical skills. Danielle particularly excelled in creating exciting and functional environments for her children to learn, and her grasp on clinical objectives allowed her to create unique and effective programs for her clients.

Danielle graduated from Pepperdine University School of Education and Psychology with a Master’s of Arts in Psychology in 2015 and is currently completing coursework at the Florida Institute of Technology to become a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. As a Program Manager, she appreciates the opportunity to share her knowledge with others and is eager to continue expanding upon her clinical skills through the guidance of passionate and talented mentors.

Lead Instructors

FirstSteps Lead Instructors provide one-to-one behavior intervention services with your child in the home, school, and community settings. They also manage your child’s treatment program and team, while supporting the Program Director and Program Manager.

Lead Instructors - Hermosa Beach

Jeanette Buchanan Linda Mao
Veronica Campos Rebecca Merida
Thania Casillas  Sean Nulty
Ramona Cortez Elizabeth Pennington
Krystina Hunley  Savannah Pio
Maria Inaty
Chelsea Sangalang
Ellen Lewis
Roisin Taylor
Anagabriel Loeza Shannon Whitelaw
Kentaro Majima  

Director of Training & Employee Development

Our Director of Training & Employee Development, Ms. Demi Contreras, epitomizes the heart and enthusiasm of our FirstSteps' clinical team. She is responsible for overseeing our FirstSteps Training Department and ensuring our Training Managers provide exceptional coaching and support to our new staff. Ms. Contreras personally guarantees that each clinical team member shares our FirstSteps values and mission to provide our clients with state of the art treatment and a brighter future.

Demetria Contreras, BCaBA

Demetria Contreras

Demetria Contreras began her career in the field of Behavior Analysis in 2001 after learning of her godson's diagnosis of Autism. Refusing to believe his doctors who explained that her godson would likely not talk or have friends, she researched the treatment options available at the time. She quickly determined that ABA was the only empirically validated and effective intervention and committed herself to becoming an expert. From 2001 through 2005, Demi worked as a senior therapeutic instructor, providing hundreds of hours of both direct intervention and parent training to families with children diagnosed with Autism.

In 2005, Ms. Contreras joined our FirstSteps team as a Lead Instructor. Not only did she work with countless FirstSteps children and families, she also partnered with other FirstSteps Program Directors and dedicated herself to recruiting, training, and assembling bilingual therapy teams with the mission to bring ABA services to non-English speaking families.

In 2006, Ms. Contreras was promoted to the position of Director of Training & Employee Development. In this capacity, Ms. Contreras continues to work directly with FirstSteps children and families while also leading the Training Department to training and providing ongoing support to our new instructors, ensuring they perfect their instructional technique and meet the specific needs of our children.

Ms. Contreras has a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Psychology from California State University, Los Angeles and has also earned her certification as a Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA).

Regional Training Manager

Our Hermosa Beach Regional Training Team, Mr. Justin Hays and Ms. Jessica Leggett, are responsible for recruiting, screening, hiring, and training our new clinical team members. They are directly involved with each FirstSteps child's treatment plan and are able to effectively coach our staff and maximize treatment integrity. As a FirstSteps family, you will see them regularly as they "pop-in" to observe your child's sessions, provide feedback, and test your child's skills and generalization of skills across instructors.

Justin Hays, M.A., BCBA

Justin Hays

Justin Hays graduated from Northern Arizona University with a B.A. in Parks and Recreation Management and a minor in journalism. While working in the field of recreation, Justin was intrigued by the work of a FirstSteps instructor working with a child at a school site. A short time later, after applying and being accepted as an instructor himself with FirstSteps, Justin knew he had found a passion in the field and the science of ABA.  

Justin seeks to keep sessions fun, active, and goofy while contriving real learning opportunities. While being promoted to lead instructor, Justin enrolled at Ball State University working towards a Master of Arts in Applied Behavior Analysis with an Emphasis in Autism. Having earned his M.A. in ABA, Justin was promoted to Program Manager at FirstSteps. 

Justin is a BCBA as of early 2015 and is now the Regional Training Manager of the Hermosa Beach office. This entails training new Instructors and Lead Instructors, as well as constantly getting out into the field to see clients and instructors during session time. This is a great fit for him as he can share his knowledge regarding a plethora of positions he has held here including Instructor, Lead Instructor, Program Manager, and now part of the training team.  He has also become a certified instructor in CPI’s Nonviolent Crisis Intervention, equipping staff with effective strategies for defusing crisis situations when they occur. He is extremely grateful to the many Program Directors who have been mentors to him through the years. Justin has a special passion for training other ABA instructors and in the general, life-long learning of the field of ABA.

Regional Training Coordinator

Jessica Salceda

Jessica Salceda

Ms. Jessica Salceda spent years dedicated to child care and found most fulfillment when working with those that had been affected by developmental disabilities. Her experiences and love for children encouraged her to follow this path into a career. She joined FirstSteps in 2009 as an instructor and was a natural from the start. Ms. Salceda was quick to gain clinical understanding and excelled in tending to the individual needs of each child. Ms. Leggett loved watching every step of progress turn into a milestone and was so inspired by the science of ABA.

Under the mentorship of many FirstSteps Program Directors and the Training Department, she was promoted to a Lead Instructor in 2010 where she acquired a great deal of experience working with children across the autism spectrum. It was also during her time as a Lead Instructor where Ms. Salceda discovered another passion: mentoring and developing clinical growth in her novice peers.

Committed to a career in this new found passion, Ms. Salceda began assisting with training duties and in July of 2013, was made an official member of the Training Department. She looks forward to helping many more children reach their goals by teaching other instructors how to utilize the science of ABA to increase skills and decrease maladaptive behaviors.