Giving all children healthy and strong starts in life.

Kids’ First Years puts your family first and connects you with opportunities for your young children.

Our Staff

Michelle Smith Howard

Michelle Smith Howard

President and CEO

Michelle Smith Howard began her career as an early childhood special education teacher and administrator with the District of Columbia Public Schools. She then served as the Director of Early Learning for the Obama Administration’s White House Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative, DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative.

Additionally, Michelle has worked as the Director of Early Childhood Development and Intervention with Catholic Charities DC and as the Coordinator of Citywide Early Childhood Programs with Alexandria City Public Schools.

Michelle currently serves on the Virginia Department of Education Early Childhood Advisory Committee. She is also an Alexandria Chamber of Commerce 40 Under 40 Awardee.

Michelle holds a bachelor’s in political science from Southern University and A&M College. She also holds a master’s in early childhood special education and an educational specialist in educational leadership and administration from The George Washington University.

Michelle credits her love for education to her mother, a retired public school teacher, and to her pre-Kindergarten teacher. Her favorite children’s books are The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats and Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina.

Maria McDonald

Maria McDonald

Director, Community Engagement and Partnerships

Maria McDonald graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in History and Art History. After working in American Furniture and Folk Art at Sotheby’s in New York, she moved to Washington, DC to work at The Phillips Collection. Working in a museum setting helped Maria realize that her passion was using art as a lens to explore different cultures and explain history. She completed her Masters in Art History and earned her teaching degree in Social Studies at American University. Maria worked at Bishop O’Connell High School for nine years before joining the KFY team in the spring of 2019 as a project manager for the Preschool Development Grant.

As the mother of two young children, Maria wants all children to be exposed to a love of learning early on so that they can embrace being life-long learners and have the tools necessary to succeed in life. Although she finds it very difficult to pick just one children’s book that is her favorite, she loves reading Circus Ship by Chris Van Dusen with her boys.

Marina Eisenberg

Director, Strategy and Operations

Marina Eisenberg is a mission-driven and solutions-oriented education leader who brings over a decade of experience to the KFY family. As a refugee who grew up in a low-income immigrant community in the Bronx, NY, Marina has personally experienced and witnessed the various challenges of navigating an educational system with limited access.

With a Bachelor’s in Hispanic Studies from Macalester College, Marina first began her career in higher education, where she focused on creating strategic initiatives to better recruit, support, and empower first-generation, low-income undergraduate students. Upon receiving her Master’s degree in Social and Public Policy from Georgetown University, she then took on the role as Registrar at Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School. Prior to joining KFY, she served as Director of Operations and Compliance at a local elementary public charter school.

As a former competitive ballroom dance, Marina still loves a good dance party, especially the impromptu ones that her two kids arrange in the living room. And while the list of her favorite children’s books grows daily, Giraffes Can’t Dance and Monkey Puzzle are among her all-time favorites!

Tomashia Cornitcher

Coordinator, Family Connections

Tomashia Cornitcher considers herself a blessed mother of three talented children who range in age from 6 to 11 years old. Her children have inspired her to be courageous and persistent when faced with meeting life’s challenges. She devotes herself to learning about any organization or activity that involves her children.

Tomashia has served as a volunteer at The Campagna Center, organized teacher appreciation days, and served as an active member of the Head Start Policy Council, where she served as Chair in 2019.  Additionally, she has participated in a number of conferences as a parent representative and highlighted Alexandria’s early childhood work.

Tomashia is passionate about children and believes that all children should have the opportunity to thrive. She is deeply aware of and committed to the work of Alexandria’s early care and education system and the focus to ensure families, including herself, can remain in the city. She made a promise that if given the opportunity to serve, she would gladly step forward given the support she has received from the early care and education community.

Milagro Yanes Benitez

Milagro Yanes Benitez

Coordinator, Quality Measurement and Improvement

Milagro has been committed to enhancing the quality of child care through various roles in early childhood education. She has supported educators, children, and their families as a home-based educator, family service specialist, and child development specialist for various Head Start Programs.

Milagro is an experienced Child Development Associate (CDA) Professional Development Specialist and served as the Program Specialist for the Virginia Quality Initiative for the City of Alexandria. Milagro is a certified CLASS observer, Early Intervention Specialist, and a registered child forensic interviewer.

Milagro holds a bachelor’s in criminal justice, a master’s in early childhood education, and has completed master’s level coursework in child development. Currently, Milagro is continuing her education at Loyola University, completing courses in curriculum design and personalized instruction.

As a mom of three, Milagro has many favorite children’s books, but her absolute favorites are What Do You Do With An Idea? and What Do You Do With A Chance? by Kobi Yamada.

Cecilia Garcia

Cecilia Garcia Meruvia

Coordinator, Family Connections

Cecilia Garcia is a bilingual, holistic, trauma-informed human services professional who has passionately served the needs of children, youth, and families for over 15 years. She provided counseling services, psychoeducational workshops and case management for over 900 families. Cecilia’s practice has focused on low-income immigrant youth and families that have experienced high levels of trauma and struggle with establishing connections in the community.

Cecilia loves getting involved with her son and husband in activities where they can assist the community and volunteer. She likes to learn about self-improvement, write poetry, practice meditation and dance. Her favorite children’s book is Three Little Monkeys.

Rocio Abanto

Administrative Assistant

Rocio Abanto is a bilingual human services professional dedicated to serving the needs of children, youth, and families. She is currently pursuing her Masters in Social Work at George Mason University and entering her final specialization year. Rocio has worked with diverse communities within Early Head Start and Fairfax County Public Schools, with a focus on building family connections and engagement. She is particularly interested in trauma-informed interventions and evidence-based practice with families.

During her free time, Rocio loves to go on nature walks, read, and listen to podcasts. She also enjoys fostering pups, self-care activities, cooking, baking, and learning from others. Her favorite children’s book is Clifford Goes to Kindergarten by Norman Bridwell.

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