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 the 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 - Housing

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 - HPS 

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 &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

Sandra joined the ARDN team in February 2016 as Finance Manager. Sandra grew up in the small rural town of High Prairie and also lived in Brooks before relocating to Edmonton to attend MacEwan University to study Accounting. She has an abundance of accounting experience in different business settings including manufacturing and non-profit and she has successfully filled roles as Accounting Manager & Business Manager. Sandra is the proud mother of two beautiful children and when not counting beans you will find her cheering on her favourite hockey team and enjoying long walks in the river valley with her family.


Lisa Bélanger, Program Manager - Housing

Lisa graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Alberta on the dean’s list. During her four years at the U of A, Lisa received three scholarships & two awards for her excellence in academics. While in school, Lisa co-chaired the Alberta Energy Challenge International Case Competition, working with Cenovus Energy to bring innovative solutions to the energy industry. She worked with PCL Construction and Kleinfelder Hood Engineering, before developing an interest in working to solve the deficit of affordable housing. Lisa worked on the development of international emergency and transitional shelters before she joined ARDN. Whether working on issues that affect affordable housing, volunteering at orphanages in Africa, dirt biking or rock climbing in the Bow Valley, Lisa brings a high level of energy and skill to everything she does.

Asad Bhatti, Research & Financial Analyst

Asad joined the ARDN in December of 2017 as a Business Analyst for the Sustainable Housing Initiative (SHI). He graduated from the University of Alberta in Spring of 2017 with a Bachelor of Commerce with a major in Finance. Prior to joining the ARDN he worked as a sales associate at Staples for the duration of his undergraduate studies. As a Business Analyst, Asad is responsible for research and compiling reports based on that research for various rural communities. His personal interests include financial news, weightlifting and reading about history.

Shadi Merhej, Research & Business Analyst

Shadi joined the ARDN in December 2017 as a Business Analyst with the Sustainable Housing Initiative. Shadi was born and raised in Edmonton, and graduated from the University of Alberta in 2016 with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and Economics. Throughout his degree, Shadi was very involved with the Students’ Union, helping to coordinate the U of A Students’ Orientation program, as well as administering Students’ Union Awards. During his free time, Shadi enjoys snowboarding, volunteering, and good coffee.

Julia Juco, Program Manager - Opioid Outreach Program 

Julia joined the ARDN in January 2018 as an intern. In April, she was brought on full time to manage two projects: the Rural Homelessness Estimation Counts and the Rural Community Opioid Outreach Program. She received her Political Science degree from the University of Alberta in the fall of 2017. Her area of focus was on immigration, ethnicity, and what they mean for Canadian identity and social policy. Prior to her undergraduate career, she grew up in Manila, Philippines. Her family moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba before settling in Fort McMurray, where they currently reside. Julia was the VP External for the U of A’s Undergraduate Psychology Association from 2015-2016. In her spare time, she does volunteer work with the Hand-to-Hand Project and the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers. As an avid gym-rat and hiking enthusiast, she is either thinking about how much protein she still needs to take or which peak to conquer next.

Hannah Brown, Community Engagement Coordinator

Hannah_BrownHannah joined ARDN in 2018 as Community Engagement Coordinator, to initiate and manage contacts with rural communities in need of affordable housing. She is currently working toward her BSc degree with a major in mathematics and a minor in biology at the University of Alberta. Throughout her degree, Hannah has done mathematical research, helped to develop curriculum for a first-year science course, tutored in various levels of math, and attended and presented at several mathematical conferences. She was fortunate to have escaped the winter of 2018 by volunteering as an English teacher in Thailand. Hannah brings an open-minded, positive, energetic approach to everything she does. Her diverse skills make her able to communicate with a large variety of people and adapt to many situations. When she isn’t studying mathematical principles or reaching out to communities in need of affordable housing, Hannah spends most of her time playing music or soaking up nature.

Sofia Lamus Quintero, Sustainable Development Coordinator - Housing 

Sofia joined the ARDN in 2018 as Sustainable Development Coordinator, to work with the Sustainable Housing Initiative (SHI). She is currently completing her last year of her Bachelor of Arts and Sciences degree in International Development and Environmental Science at the University of Ottawa. Prior to joining the ARDN, Sofia was a Parliamentary guide at Parliament of Canada and worked for an environmental organization teaching sustainability in churches across Canada. Throughout her studies, she has been involved in promoting sustainable development by participating in Parliamentary simulations, partaking in two humanitarian trips to Colombia and Cuba, and being involved in the implementation of a fair-trade cooperative to sell fair trade coffee at the University of Ottawa. Sofia has travelled to several countries, as being born in Colombia, then lived in Mexico for 6 years, and has now lived in Canada for 13 years. In her free time, Sofia keeps track of her transition into living a zero-waste lifestyle to reduce her ecological footprint.

Linda An, Business Support Coordinator

Linda joined ARDN in May 2018 as the Business Support Coordinator. She graduated from the University of Alberta in 2017 with a Bachelor of Commerce and is currently working toward her Juris Doctor. She has worked on the development of transition shelters prior to joining ARDN. She has been an active volunteer in the community, providing legal assistance to vulnerable groups at the local student legal clinic and community legal centre, and tax-reporting service for low-income individuals. In her spare time, she enjoys painting, yoga, and playing the piano. 



Subscribe today for the ARDN's Alberta Rural Connector newsletter.

Subscribe ›