Meet the Team
Board of Directors
Sam Brandsen, PhD (he/him)
Sam is an autistic parent of an autistic child. He completed his Ph.D. in physics at Duke University, and afterwards switched his focus to autism research. He currently works for the Duke Autism Center and absolutely loves anything related to neurodiversity and autism advocacy. He is especially interested in developing more accessible healthcare systems and educational practices, as well as learning about how research and the neurodiversity movement can better address the needs and perspectives of individuals with intellectual disabilities.
Shreyas Hallur (he/him)
Born and raised in Phoenix, Shreyas is a proud Arizonan majoring in public policy and statistics. He seeks to develop innovative policies to help neurodiverse people lead an independent life. At the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center, Shreyas initiated a program to create inclusive science learning opportunities for autistic children that has won a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation. He also advocates for greater accessibility on campus through Duke Disability Alliance, Duke Student Government, and Neurodiversity Connections. In the future, Shreyas will continue this work by reforming healthcare delivery for populations with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He has pursued this career with internships at state and federal governments. During the pandemic, Shreyas interned with Arizona Medicaid where he informed the rollout of telehealth and helped protect members with developmental disabilities from exposure to COVID-19. After graduation, he plans to enroll in a joint MD/MPH degree so he can work at the intersection of long-term care, patient advocacy, and data-informed policymaking. Shreyas was recently named a Rhodes Scholar and will continue learning ways to support increased accessibility for autistic individuals while attending Oxford University in the United Kingdom. In his spare time, Shreyas enjoys hiking, listening to podcasts, and skateboarding.
Jalessa Johnson (she/her)
Jaleesa Johnson is a research regulatory associate in clinical trials with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and is a single mom to a young daughter with cerebral palsy and developmental delay. Her daughter, Karlyn currently receives PT, OT and Speech Therapies. Jaleesa has traveled to Ghana, West Africa, to perform mission work and research at Korle Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra in the labor and delivery unit, where she also mentored young children. She has volunteered for various different organizations with a focus on women's and children’s health. She attended the University of North Carolina in Greensboro majoring in public health and minoring in American Sign Language and received her Master of Science degree in public health from Meharry Medical College. In her spare time she's still an active member in her sorority, she has a hobby of creating nail art and she enjoys spending quality time with her daughter and family.
Luz Mejia (she/hers/her/ella/suya)
I am a Spanish-bilingual community advocate with nearly a decade of experience serving selected groups in fast-paced environments. Being a people person, I'm a listener, an ambassador, and someone who helps others get things done. Traveling is one of my favorite things to do, especially visiting different cultures and learning more about them. While traveling in under-developed areas, I have seen and heard community struggles and searched for resources, allowing them to be heard and understood. I'm excited to join TheraFriends because I know TheraFriends is committed to supporting underprivileged and underserved populations! Being able to communicate with people throughout the community is incredibly fulfilling to me. Throughout my career, I have had the privilege of supporting birthing people, English as a Second Language families, low-income, Medicaid/Medicare, and uninsured recipients as a Birth Doula, Patient Financial Advocate, and Care Advisor. As a community-facing professional with over 8 years of experience, I look forward to continuing in that role for many years to come!
Cristina Mena, LMHC (she/her)
I recently moved to the Research Triangle area and I am glad to have found an organization whose mission is so near and dear to my heart. After a family member received an Autism diagnosis in 2019, several new conversations about Neurodivergence opened up for us. After much research and reflection, we learned more about how Neurodivergence has always been a core piece of our family identity. Previously, we never had an official "label" to describe the quirkiness and differences that we had all come to accept in ourselves. Now we have a much more solid understanding and appreciation of who we are as a family. As a parent who is always striving for advocacy and as a therapist who is well aware of the difficulties in receiving accommodations and proper healthcare, I hope to contribute to a much bigger movement for change.
When I am not directly advocating for parental wellness and Neurodiversity-affirming care, I am working as a Florida licensed therapist. I am passionate about providing bilingual treatment for clients who are experiencing pregnancy and postpartum issues as well as trauma and related disorders. In order to take care of my own mental health, I try to "not sweat the small stuff", while focusing on dancing, learning new things, and having fun outdoors with my kids.
We are very grateful to our Board Alumni for their support of Therafriends. Our alumni include: