About Us

Our Team

Creating Rural Connections

Through Collaboration

Board of Directors 2017/2018


Dr. Trent Keough, President
Portage College

Vice Chair:

Dr. Dietmar Kennepohl, Professor of Chemistry
Athabasca University 



Ann Everatt, President & CEO
Northern Lakes College 


Susan Bansgrove, Vice-President Academics
& Research

Grande Prairie Regional College



Dr. Baljit Singh, Dean of Faculty of Veterinary Medicine
University of Calgary


Dr. Erasmus Okine, Vice-President, Research
University of Lethbridge


 ARDN team

Dee Ann Benard, Executive Director

Dee Ann joined the ARDN as executive director in April 2009.  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.  In 1998, she joined private industry to manage the Alberta operation of Integrated Crop Management Services (ICMS), Inc.  In 2000, she moved to the Alberta Research Council 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 is an avid skier and hiker, and much to the chagrin of others, she loves winter and snow.


Joshua Bénard, Program Director 

Josh joined the ARDN in June 2016 as the Project Manager of the Sustainable Housing Initiative (SHI). His work experience has been diverse: from sales, estimating and project coordinating for a manufacturer of exterior building envelopes, to project managing residential, commercial, institutional and industrial construction projects. Josh received a scholarship to George Brown College in 2006 and was involved on the Program Advisory Board of the technology department. He has also been working with the Department of Applied Research and Innovation at Red Deer College on a contract basis to help develop emergency and transitional shelters.



Jonn Kmech, Program Manager

Jonn joined the ARDN in July 2016 as the Program Manager for the Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS) initiative. He was born in Calgary and grew up in Brooks, Alberta, moving to Edmonton in 2005. He graduated in 2010 with a Bachelor of Science in Physiology from the University of Alberta and served as the Editor-in-Chief of The Gateway, the student newspaper at the UofA, in 2010-2011. Prior to the ARDN, he worked as a research assistant in the UofA’s Department of Psychiatry for three years.   

Jonn works with various community organizations and not-for-profits in Alberta providing support for them as they implement their HPS projects and work towards ending rural and remote homelessness around the province. In his spare time, Jonn volunteers for Amnesty International and the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights. His interests include politics, psychology, philosophy, human and animal rights, film, and music (particularly punk).



Zain Abedin, Research and Strategy Manager

Zain joined the ARDN in 2017 as a Research and Strategy Manager, to manage research, develop financial strategies and business cases to raise funding for various affordable housing projects across rural Alberta. He has 4 years of international sales and account management experience in a B2B environment and has significant experience in developing major customer accounts in the Oil & Gas industry. He also set up and ran a LED lighting division of a family business in the United Arab Emirates. Zain also owns and runs a boutique consulting & branding firm to fuel his interest in design and technology.

His research and writing skills have enabled him to raise funding for a local start-up in the social entrepreneurship space. Zain is personally motivated to work in this space with an attitude of “making things happen for the greater good”. His skills include developing strategies and leading a diverse team to execution. He has an undergraduate degree in Finance / Management from the American University of Sharjah and an MBA in Innovation and Entrepreneurship from the University of Alberta.



Nurjan Watson, Operations Manager

Nurjan joined the ARDN as Operations Manager in August 2017. Nurjan earned a Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering-Economics from Kyrgyz State Technical University and a second degree in Commerce from Kyrgyz Russian Slavic University; both in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic. Prior to immigrating to Canada, Nurjan worked in the finance group of Kumtor Operating Company/Centerra Gold. After arriving in Canada, Nurjan returned to school to earn a diploma in Business Administration from NAIT, after which she worked in the oil and gas industry. Nurjan has been an active volunteer since 2011 with the Kyrgyz Society in Alberta. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, skiing, and reading.


Sandra Di Cesare, Finance Manager



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