Dee Ann Benard

Executive Director

Dee Ann is the ARDN's inaugural executive director. After earning her B.Sc. (Biology) and M.Sc. (Plant Pathology) from Simon Fraser University, Dee Ann moved to Edmonton in 1994 to work with Alberta Agriculture.  Eventually, she joined private industry to manage the Alberta operation of Integrated Crop Management Services (ICMS), Inc. Later, she moved to the Alberta Research Council (now called Alberta Innovates) in Vegreville where she worked first as a plant pathologist, and later in business development. In 2004, she joined the newly formed Agricultural Research and Extension Council of Alberta (ARECA) as executive director, a position she held for over five years.

Dee Ann served as a member of the Agriculture and Food Council for several years, where she held roles such as Chair of Advancing Canadian Agriculture and Agri-Food and Treasurer. She is an active volunteer in her community and in her professional life. Dee Ann enjoys skiing, kayaking and hiking.

Zain Abedin

Director, Community Development

Zain is ARDN's Director of Community Development, a unique position that works in consultation with rural communities to identify issues and develop strategies to provide solutions across all ARDN's initiatives, especially housing and homelessness. Zain has been working at ARDN for a few years, specializing in managing research, developing financial strategies and creating business cases in an effort to raise funding for projects in rural communities. He has authored the “Step-by-Step Guide to Estimate Rural Homelessness”; an award winning guide to estimate rural homelessness in rural communities across Canada. The guide is being successfully applied across Canada and is gaining traction on an international scale.

Zain is passionate about “making things happen for the greater good” and has an excellent track record of securing funds in the social entrepreneurship space. He has international sales and account management experience in the Oil & Gas industry and runs a boutique consulting firm that fuels his interest in design and technology. Zain has completed a degree in Finance/Management with a minor in Actuarial Math from the American University of Sharjah and an MBA in Innovation & Entrepreneurship from the University of Alberta.

Scott Travis

Director, Research & Programs

Scott is the Director of Research and Programs at the ARDN. Bringing his expertise in mental health research, he joined the ARDN to develop evidence-based methods to improve mental health and quality of life of those living in affordable housing. Scott believes that everyone deserves to be proud of the place they call home, and that improved living conditions will translate not only to improved outcomes in tenants, but also to reduced operator costs and increased community acceptance. He has been a part of the ARDN since September 2018, and his role has since expanded to overseeing the work behind SHI's many projects and initiatives. Born in Hanna, AB, and raised in Lethbridge, AB, Scott was lucky enough to spend much of his childhood on the family farm, and exploring the very windy, southwest Alberta. 

Scott has a degree in Neuroscience with honours, from the University of Lethbridge, and has done his PhD work at the University of Alberta in Neuroscience and Mental Health. In his spare time, Scott enjoys running, making noise on his piano and drums, and exploring Alberta’s backcountry.

Lisa Bélanger

Director, Operations

Before being promoted to Operations Manager, Lisa was Program Manager of ARDN’s Sustainable Housing Initiative. Prior to joining ARDN, she worked with PCL Construction and Kleinfelder Hood Engineering, as well as on the development of international emergency and transitional shelters. Lisa earned her Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Alberta, where she was on the Dean’s List, and received several scholarships and awards for her excellence in academics. Whether working on issues that affect rural Canada, volunteering at orphanages in Africa, or dirt biking and rock climbing, Lisa brings a high level of organization, energy and skill to everything she does.

Kelly Petraschuk

Office Manager & Executive Assistant

Kelly is the Office Manager and Executive Assistant to the Executive Director. Kelly utilizes her organizational skills to support the staff and ensure that the office is running smoothly. Her diverse range of knowledge and know-how allows for the staff’s day to day lives to flow a bit more smoothly! She joined the ARDN in 2018 to start a new chapter with the organization. Born and raised in Edmonton, she has spent the majority of her work life in the Floral Industry owning and building a prominent flower shop from the ground up.

During her spare time, Kelly enjoys volunteering at the Edmonton Humane Society, critiquing blockbuster films, travelling and reading the latest bestsellers!

Shadi Merhej

Senior Analyst, Policy and Research

Shadi is the Senior Analyst, Policy and Research for the Sustainable Housing Initiative. He was born and raised in Edmonton, and graduated from the University of Alberta with a B.Sc. in Mathematics and Economics and has recently completed his Masters in Economics. Throughout his degree, Shadi was very involved with the Students’ Union, helping to coordinate the UofA Students’ Orientation program, administering the Students’ Union Awards.

During his free time, Shadi enjoys snowboarding, volunteering, and good coffee.

Asad Bhatti

Manager, Capital Funding

Asad is the Capital Funding Manager for the Sustainable Housing Initiative (SHI). He graduated from the University of Alberta with a Bachelor of Commerce with a major in Finance. Asad is responsible for conducting research and financial analysis, and compiling reports for projects in rural communities.

His personal interests include financial news, weightlifting and reading about history.

Julia Juco

Manager, Communications

Julia is the Communications Manager for the ARDN. Julia earned a Political Science degree (Psychology minor) from the University of Alberta, where her area of focus was on immigration, ethnicity, and its policy implications for Canadian identity. Julia was the VP External for the university’s Undergraduate Psychology Association, and her time during university was spent between academics, volunteering, and trekking with the Outdoors’ Club. Prior to moving to Edmonton for university, she’s lived in Manila, Winnipeg, and Fort McMurray.


In her spare time, Julia can be found tending to her plants, working out, or planning her next hikes/trips at local coffee shops.

Sandra Di Cesare

Finance Manager

Sandra was born and raised in the rural community of High Prairie, AB. She completed High School in Brooks, AB and upon graduation relocated to Edmonton to study Accounting at MacEwan University. Sandra brings an abundance of Accounting knowledge having worked in various industries including construction, education and nonprofit. She has successfully held positions as Business Manager and Accounting Manager. Sandra was previously a member of the ARDN team and has once again returned to fill the role of Finance Manager.


In her spare time, Sandra volunteers at the Edmonton Humane Society and enjoys volleyball, hockey and yoga.

Azam Khattak

Analyst, Research & Programs

Azam Khattak works with the ARDN as a Research and Programs Analyst. He specializes in research investigation, data analytics and business case development and has assisted with initiatives such as the Rural Homelessness Estimation Initiative that provides the necessary data required to highlight the need of developing affordable housing in rural communities across Canada. Prior to joining ARDN, Azam worked for the Government of Canada as a Capital Assistant in Indigenous Services. Azam is motivated and passionate about affordable housing industry and making use of his skills and expertise to support the development of healthy communities. His experience working with client needs and objectives in small and focused communities allows Azam to be an important of the ARDN team.

Azam completed a Bachelor of Commerce with a major in Finance and a minor in Management Information Systems from the University of Alberta. He was the External Director of the Business Finance Association and president of a mental health club during his time at the University of Alberta. During his time at university, Azam was an avid volunteer, having volunteered with Learning Beyond Borders, Kids Help Phone and the Student Union Market Research Team in the past.

Jayde Roche

Program Manager, Rural Immigration

Jayde Roche is a Program Manager with ARDN, and has double duties as both a network developer and project coordinator. Born and raised in St. Albert, Alberta, Jayde has since created the national network focused on rural and remote housing and homelessness. Before joining the ARDN, notable volunteer experience includes working with youth and immigrant communities in Edmonton.

Jayde holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Alberta with a double major in Anthropology and Latin American Studies. She also has a Certificate in Community Engagement and Service Learning and a Certificate in International Learning from the University of Alberta.

Cassandra Rasko

Project Manager, Substance Use and Awareness

Cassandra has a strong background in working with not-for-profits and small businesses and brings her skills as the Project Manager for the Substance Use and Awareness Program. Cassandra previously ran a successful business mentor program, engaging skilled seniors in the agri-food industry to mentor entrepreneurs and she managed a coworking space.    

Cassandra's background includes 2 bachelor degrees (biological sciences and agriculture), a stint in healthcare, and consulting, all contributing to her diverse skill set. Cassandra's downtime includes listening to podcasts, learning different fiber arts and cycling in the river valley. She enjoys volunteering at Pilgrim's Hospice with their Homeless Hospice Program and at the Edmonton Folk Fest.

Elnaz Aliasl

Architectural Designer, Project Coordinator

Elnaz works as an Architectural Designer and Project Coordinator for Rural Immigration with ARDN. Her keen knowledge in Design, Social Issues, and Research helps her to develop design guidelines to enhance mental health in affordable housing. Her focus has been on creating socially sustainable communities by understanding user groups' expectations and needs.

Elnaz holds a Master of Design from the University of Alberta, and a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Tabriz. She also has a certificate in Innovation in the Social Sector. During her time at the university, she volunteered as VP with Health and Wellness Movement Student Group, and as a Judge in the Festival of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities(FUCRA).

During her spare time, Elnaz enjoys photography, watching movies, and trying new recipes.

Sydney Stenekes

Manager, Homelessness Initiatives

Sydney joined ARDN as the Manager of Homelessness Initiatives in 2020. She grew up in Hamilton, Ontario and earned her Bachelor of Social Science with a specialization in International Economics and Development from the University of Ottawa in 2017. Sydney is currently completing her MSc. at the University of Alberta, where she engaged in a collaborative research project with Kátł’odeeche First Nation. The project highlights the importance of Traditional Ecological Knowledge in understanding environmental change. Overall, Sydney’s research interests continue to evolve, but encompass social, environmental and economic policy in the areas of community development and natural resource management.

Sydney looks forward to drawing on her previous federal government and community-based research experience to help build strong relationships with rural communities in Alberta. In Sydney’s free time, she enjoys studying Spanish, hiking, biking, volunteering and tutoring high school students

Martin Kreiner

Communications Coordinator

Martin is the Communications Coordinator for the ARDN. He graduated from the University of Alberta with a Bachelor of Design in the Engineering route. Before joining the ARDN team, Martin worked as a freelance designer and at Radio-Canada as a researcher and associate producer for Le Café Show. In addition to a francophone voice, he brings a strategic design process to ARDN and several of its projects.

Martin is a long-time volunteer in Alberta's Francophone community, having been on the board of directors of Francophonie jeunesse de l'Alberta for six years and now currently sits as the treasurer for the Association Canadienne Française de l'Alberta.

Having grown up in Jasper, Martin can be found in the mountains skiing, biking, or rafting in his free time.

Shelby Rowein

Project Manager, Agri-food Initiatives

Shelby joined ARDN as a practicum student from the University of Alberta School of Public Health. She is currently working as a Registered Dietitian and completing her Master’s in Public Health with a specialization in health promotion. Previously, she completed her BSc. degree in Human Nutrition at St. Francis Xavier University.

Shelby is working remotely in her hometown of Macklin, SK where she grew up on a farm. She has a keen interest in addressing local food security levels through a capacity building approach. In her spare time, she can be found gardening, baking, bird watching, and coaching local softball.