Meet Our team

Bob Ponchitera.jpeg

Dr. Robert Ponichtera


Founder/Executive Director

Dr. Robert M. Ponichtera oversees the organization’s day-to-day operations, devoting his time to creating a network of partners, generating publicity, and cultivating donors. Dr. Ponichtera has more than a decade of experience working for nonprofit organizations, guiding program direction and fundraising activities. Before founding Liberty’s Promise, Dr. Ponichtera worked at Freedom House and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where he wrote grants, coordinated program activities, and conducted research. Dr. Ponichtera earned a Ph.D. in East European History from Yale University in 1995 and has taught at Yale, Quinnipiac College, Albertus Magnus College, and George Mason University. A native English speaker, Dr. Ponichtera is fluent in Polish. He and his wife, Renata, reside in Alexandria, Virginia with their son, Anthony.

Dr. Ponichtera can be reached at

Fun Fact: Bob has more than 21,000 baseball cards.


Mariam Abdelwahab

Program Officer 

Mariam Abdelwahab conducts civic engagement and internship programs at Wakefield and T.C. Williams High School in Northern Virginia. Mariam is originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She attended the University of Pittsburgh where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication and Rhetoric and a certificate in Global Studies. During her time at Pitt,  she worked as a Resident Assistant in the college resident halls, served as a volunteer chair for the African Student Organization, managed a local food bank center through the Muslim Student Association, and worked as a tutor with the local Somali refugee community. In addition to her on-campus activities,  Mariam spent a semester in the Dominican Republic studying Spanish, a summer studying Arabic in Jordan, as well as a semester exploring policy analysis and immigration in Spain, Morocco, and India. 

Ms. Abdelwahab can be reached at

Fun Fact: Mariam trekked for a week in the Himalayas


Cailin Barker

Program Officer

Cailin Barker conducts Civics and Citizenship and internship programs at Parkville High School in Baltimore, MD. Cailin is originally from Rosemont, Pennsylvania. She graduated from Goucher College with a Bachelor's Degree in Peace Studies. While at Goucher, Cailin spent a semester studying Post-Genocide Restoration and Peacebuilding in Kigali, Rwanda. After graduating, she spent a year in Paris, France teaching English classes to primarily immigrant elementary school students. She has worked as a teaching assistant in a Baltimore City charter school and as a farm manager at an organic farm in Montgomery County, MD. After working with the immigrant community in France and youth in Baltimore, Cailin was inspired to unite her two experiences and do more to help the immigrant youth population of Baltimore.

Ms. Barker can be reached at

Fun Fact : Cailin was unschooled and didn't attend school until college.


Carmen Centeno

Program Officer

Carmen Centeno conducts our internship and volunteering programs as well as our Civics and Citizenship program and the Civic Engagement for Beginning English Language Learners (CE-BELL) at Northwood High School in Maryland.  Carmen was born in San Salvador, El Salvador, and moved to the United States in 2005. While a student at Northwood High School in Silver Spring, MD, she participated in Liberty’s Promise, both in our after-school Civics program and our internship program. After high school, she attended Montgomery College and graduated with an associate degree in teaching.  Carmen has also pursued her passion for helping her community through volunteer work with different nonprofit organizations. Carmen has been working with Liberty's Promise since 2015, and is the creator of the Manos Unidas program, which helps undocumented youth get community service opportunities during the summer.  

Mrs. Centeno can be reached at

Fun Fact: Due to Carmen's dedication with youth she was recognized as a "DMV Hero" by Univision. 


Melissa Gelinas

Program Officer

Melissa Gelinas conducts Civic Engagement for Beginning English Language Learners (CE-BELL) at Roosevelt and T.C. Williams High Schools in Washington D.C. and Alexandria, Virginia.  Melissa graduated from the University of Vermont with a Bachelor’s Degree in Linguistics, and later from Wake Forest University with a Master’s Degree in Spanish Interpreting and Translation.  After graduating, she spent a year in Ecuador, teaching English classes for middle and high school students, as well as business professionals.  She worked as an interpreter in the Forsyth County N.C. public schools, at Forsyth County Department of Social Services, and at World Relief.  After working with the immigrant community as an interpreter, Melissa was inspired to do more to help, which led her to Liberty’s Promise.

Ms. Gelinas can be reached at

Fun Fact: Melissa has a soft spot for dogs- so much that she rescued one in Ecuador and brought it back to the U.S. with her.


Ben Johnson

Program Officer

Ben Johnson conducts civic engagement and internship programs in Prince George’s County, MD, specifically at High Point and Northwestern High School. Mr. Johnson attended Christopher Newport University where he received a degree in Spanish and Political Science. During his time at CNU, Ben was involved with a variety of performing arts groups including Expansion A-Cappella, Initiative Student Theatre, and a rock band among other activities. Upon graduating, Ben worked for CNU in the Student Engagement office connecting at-risk students to the resources necessary to excel and succeed.  Prior to joining Liberty’s Promise, Ben lived in the Dominican Republic coordinating a volunteer program while teaching English. He hopes to continue to be a resource to youth here at Liberty’s Promise.

Mr. Johnson can be reached at

Fun Fact: Ben can name and identify every country in the world!


Julien Labiche

Senior Program Officer

Julien Labiche conducts programs at Gaithersburg High School and at John F. Kennedy High School (Silver Spring), as well as oversight of junior program staff in our Montgomery County office. He studied at Université Paul Valéry in Montpellier, France, where he obtained degrees in English Studies and in French as a Second Language. Mr. Labiche studied abroad for one year at Wittenberg University in Springfield, OH, where he happily immersed himself in American culture. He worked as a certified English teacher at various public schools in the south of France, then moved to the US in 2006 and taught French in high school and at a language institute in Bethesda, MD before joining Liberty's Promise in 2009. He lives in Silver Spring, MD, with his wife and daughter.

Mr. Labiche can be reached at

Fun Fact: When Julien lived in Virginia Beach, VA, he played lead guitar in a rock band.


Melanie Ojwang

Program Officer

Melanie Ojwang conducts civic education and internship programs at Parkdale High School and Bladensburg High School in Prince George’s County, Maryland. She graduated with a  degree  in English and Sociology from McDaniel College. Throughout her undergraduate career, Melanie worked as a writing tutor but also spent her free time with community organizations, notably Diversity Empowerment and Education Peers and Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc. Prior to working with Liberty's Promise, she spent nine months in India as an English Teaching Assistant and worked with international graduate students through Johns Hopkins Carey Business School.

Ms. Ojwang can be reached at

Fun fact: Melanie once had a monkey perch on her knee while watching the sunrise.


Katherine Rocha

Program Officer

Katherine Rocha conducts the civic education and internship programs in Montgomery County, MD, specifically at Wheaton High School and the Silver Spring Civic Building (serving youth from Montgomery Blair High School). Katie is originally from Virginia Beach, VA and graduated from the University of Virginia with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Sociology.  While at UVA, Katie served as a committed member of the Latino Student Alliance and volunteered as a mentor to Hispanic youth in the Charlottesville community. Prior to working with Liberty’s Promise, Katie worked as an advocate for domestic violence survivors and implemented a youth program in the rural community of Helena, Arkansas.  As a Mexican-American, Katie is thrilled to be able to follow her passion of working in the immigrant community.. 

Ms. Rocha can be reached at

Fun Fact: Katie loves studying modern art, especially works by her favorite artist- Mark Rothko.


Jacqueline Fernandez Vela

Program Officer

Jackie Fernandez conducts Civic Engagement for Beginning English Language Learners (CE-BELL) at Gaithersburg High School and John F. Kennedy High School in Maryland. Jackie was born in Mexico, and immigrated to the United States in 1999. She graduated from Pomona College with a Bachelor of Arts in Latin American Studies and International Relations, and focused on studying immigration in those fields. Prior to joining Liberty’s Promise, Jackie worked with low-income, minority students through the Questbridge and Upward Bound programs. Drawing from her own experience in the US as an immigrant and what she learned in the classroom and in her community, she aspires to be welcoming, supportive, and a resource to immigrant youth and immigrants overall.

Ms. Fernandez Vela can be reached at

Fun Fact: Jackie has shaken former President Barack Obama’s hand at the CHCI (Congressional Hispanic Caucus Gala).


McKenzie Williams

Program Officer

McKenzie Williams conducts civic engagement and internship programs at West Potomac High School in Alexandria, VA. In addition, McKenzie works as part-time outreach officer, offering guidance and resources to our alumni. McKenzie grew up in Vienna, VA and graduated from James Madison University with a B.S. in Technical Writing and a minor degree Health Communication Studies. While at JMU, McKenzie was a member of Alpha Phi Omega, a co-ed service fraternity on campus. Through APO McKenzie worked over 40 hours a semester as a volunteer coordinator for The Salvation Army Youth Program. McKenzie’s passion for working with youth, and implementing programs to help them succeed, led her to the position of Program Officer at Liberty’s Promise.

Ms. Williams can be reached at

Fun Fact: McKenzie was supposed to be an April Fools baby, but decided to play her first trick by being born on Valentines Day instead.