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.
Janine Strack, M.S., BCBA
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 as Regional Clinic Director for 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!
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.
Sarah Bolla, M.Ed., BCBA
Sarah Bolla graduated from Texas State University-San Marcos in 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication Studies with a minor in Mass Communications. Throughout her undergraduate studies, Ms. Bolla worked with children in a variety of settings as a Swim Instructor, Gymnastics Instructor, and as a Boarding School Activities Supervisor, as well as volunteering with a variety of non-profit organizations as a camp counselor. Through these experiences, Ms. Bolla developed a passion for working with children and strived to find a career geared towards benefiting children and helping those in need. She became interested in ABA when she began researching the field and the various companies providing services.
In 2014, Ms. Bolla discovered FirstSteps for Kids, Inc. She joined the FirstSteps team as an Instructor and was later promoted to Lead Instructor. During this time, she developed a passion for the field of ABA and decided to further her education. She pursued a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction in Applied Behavior Analysis through Arizona State University and received her BCBA.
Ms. Bolla is excited to be working as a Program Director at FirstSteps. She is extremely grateful for the opportunities and experience this agency has provided, and to be involved with a company dedicated to providing quality ABA services to children diagnosed with autism. Ms. Bolla looks forward to continuing her professional growth at FirstSteps for Kids and working with a dedicated team of professionals.
Sarah Johnson, M.S., BCBA
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.
Christina Kowan, M.A., BCBA
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.
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.
Michelle Schmidt, M.A., BCBA
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.
Wai-Ling Wu, M.A., BCBA
Wai-Ling Wu received a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from University of California, Los Angeles in 2011. Throughout her undergraduate career, she had volunteered with a research lab that examined emotional responding to music through fMRIs in children and teens diagnosed with autism. After graduation, she sought other avenues of helping children diagnosed with autism, and found a job as a behavior technician at an ABA agency in Los Angeles. Through her two years there, she experienced first-hand the difference that behavior analysis could make as she watched all her clients make significant strides in their lives. To pursue her Master’s Degree in Behavior Analysis, she moved to Houston to attend a three-year behavior analysis program at the University of Houston - Clear Lake. During the program, Ms. Wu had the privilege of working in a variety of settings, including the early childhood ABA-Skills Intervention Program, the parent-training Verbal Behavior Clinic, and the Severe Behavior Disorders Research Clinic. She developed her research skills by assisting in a variety of research projects and refined her clinical skills working under close supervision of different behavior analysts in center-based services, school districts, and in-home settings. She also participated in community workshops and presentations that spread basic ABA strategies to teachers and parents of children with developmental disabilities. Through her internships and classes, she developed a passion for the field of behavior analysis, learning about the research behind the science and the impact that behavior analysis can have in the applied settings.
Upon completing her Master’s Degree in Behavior Analysis in 2016, Ms. Wu accepted a position in California and received her BCBA the same year. For the next three years, she continued to gain valuable clinical experiences in both Northern and Southern California. She discovered FirstSteps in 2019 and was very excited to find a team who is dedicated to both the evidence-based practices and the needs of the children and families that they serve. Ms. Wu’s clinical and research interests lie in verbal behavior, foreign language development, and staff training.
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.
Ramona Cortez, B.S.
After graduating from California State University, Long Beach in 2012 with a Bachelor of Science in Health Science, Ms. Cortez began working at an early intervention program with children who were identified to be at risk for developmental delays. Ms. Cortez always had a profound love for working with children but soon discovered her passion for working with children with special needs. She wanted to learn what therapeutic interventions and practices worked best for this population and was led to the field of applied behavior analysis.
Ramona joined First Steps For Kids, Inc. in 2015 as an Instructor and within a year was promoted to Lead Instructor. As an Instructor, Ms. Cortez learned the fundamental skills and principles of ABA while working with children and their families in a variety of settings. After witnessing incredible growth in the children with whom she worked, she decided to pursue a higher education in the field of ABA . She completed her BCaBA coursework in 2017 and is currently pursuing her Master’s Degree in Applied Behavior Analysis from Ball State University.
As a Program Manager, Ms. Cortez appreciates the opportunity to expand her clinical skills through the guidance of passionate individuals. She looks forward to continuing to make a positive impact in the lives of the children and families with whom she works.
Maria Inaty, M.S.
Maria Inaty graduated from Florida State University in 2014 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Family and Child Sciences with a minor in Psychology. Throughout her undergraduate studies, she worked at a Neuropsychiatric Institute as an intern shadowing a variety of professionals in the clinic. Additionally, Ms. Inaty completed her field-experience for her degree at Boys Town in Tallahassee, FL. It was there that she found an eagerness to work with individuals who face adversity. Post-graduation, Ms. Inaty moved to Southern California and began teaching at a local preschool. Throughout this experience, she once again found that she gravitated towards children who needed additional support in the classroom and desired to find a career that allowed opportunities to create a greater impact on individual children’s lives.
In 2016, Ms. Inaty began to work with FirstSteps for Kids, Inc. She joined the team as an Instructor and was later promoted to Lead Instructor. Shortly thereafter, Ms. Inaty decided to pursue a Master of Science degree in Applied Behavior Analysis at the University of Southern California. She completed her coursework in May of 2019 and is currently completing her project to teach text messaging skills to adolescents with autism.
Ms. Inaty is looking forward to continued growth at FirstSteps for Kids as a Program Manager and is excited to embrace additional responsibilities as a supervisor. She is grateful to be working in an environment that fosters continued learning and development for clients and professionals alike.
Ellen Lewis, M.A.
Ms. Lewis graduated from University of California, Riverside in 2012 with her Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology. Throughout her undergraduate degree she worked as a shadow for children with autism spectrum disorder at preschools and camps. Ms. Lewis was introduced to applied behavior analysis in her first job out of college and instantly fell in love with her clients and the principles of ABA.
Having grown up in Santa Barbara, Ms. Lewis moved to South Bay in 2013 to continue her career in ABA at FirstSteps for Kids, Inc. Starting as an Instructor, she was quickly promoted to Lead Instructor in 2014. Ms. Lewis saw how passionate FirstSteps is about caring for their clients and the strong clinical ethic of their staff, and knew that she would learn so much. As such, she decided to pursue a career in the field and continue to grow within the company.
Ms. Lewis graduated from Ball State University with a Master’s of Arts in Applied Behavior Analysis in 2018 and is currently working on becoming a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. As a Program Manager, she is excited to continue to expand her role at FirstSteps for Kids and work to develop the programs that help change our clients’ lives.
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.
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, B.A., BCaBA
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 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
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.