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

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.


Peter Kendrick, Human Resources Manager

Peter joined the ARDN team at the start of 2018 from MacEwan University in Edmonton, as human resources manager. Peter has a Diploma in Social work and is earning his degree in human services management. Peter brings with him 20 years experience in alternative housing models, including disability and complex needs accommodations. Peter is dedicated to facing the challenges of ending homelessness in all of Alberta.

Lisa Bélanger, B.Com, 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, B.Com, Business 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, B.Sc, 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, BA, Sustainable Development Coordinator (Intern)

Julia joined the ARDN as one of two Sustainable Development Coordinator Interns in January 2018. 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.

Raphaël Desjardins, Sustainable Development Coordinator (Intern)

Raphaël Desjardins joined the ARDN in January 2018 as a sustainable development coordinator for the Sustainable Housing Initiative (SHI). He is a third-year student in the environmental geography program at University of Montreal. His interests include sustainable development, environmental issues and the impacts of climate change. Raphaël got involved in the University student community by organizing and participating in various events within the geography department. In his spare time, he enjoys playing guitar, reading and cooking.

Raphaël Desjardins a joint l’ARDN en janvier 2018 comme Coordonnateur en développement durable pour l’Initiative de Logement Durable (ILD). Raphaël est un étudiant de troisième année au baccalauréat en géographie environnementale à l’Université de Montréal. Ses intérêts sont orientés vers le développement durable, les enjeux environnementaux et l’étude de l’impact des changements climatiques. Raphaël s’est impliqué dans la communauté étudiante du département de géographie en organisant et en participant à différentes activités. Dans ses temps libres, il aime jouer de la guitare, lire et cuisiner.



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