Leadership Team

Nicaragua Staff

Headshot of Nola Nackerud

Nola Nackerud

Program Coordinator

Nola is the program coordinator for the Señas y Sonrisas app project. She studied American Sign Language interpretation in the United States, is a former Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua, and currently resides in Condega. She is also the Nicaragua liaison for the Bend, Oregon sister city project.

Headshot of Heydi Velasquez

Heydi Erenia Velásquez Rugama


Heydi is from Estelí and provides NSL training to the local teacher from San Juan de Limay. Together they team teach deaf children in order to improve their communication and life skills.

Board of Directors

Headshot of Marie Coppola

Marie Coppola

Founder and Chair

M.A., Ph.D., Brain & Cognitive Sciences, University of Rochester

Asst. Professor, Departments of Psychology and Linguistics, University of Connecticut

Dr. Coppola’s interest in language and effective communication is long-standing, being rooted in her experience as the hearing daughter of two Deaf parents who use American Sign Language. Her academic research focuses on the importance of sign language input and a linguistic community for deaf children’s linguistic and cognitive development. Through Signs and Smiles, she strives to connect deaf children and their families with linguistic resources.

Headshot of Chris Kurz

Christopher Kurz


Ph.D., Foundations of Education, University of Kansas

Professor, Rochester Institute of Technology/National Technical Institute for the Deaf

Chris is on the faculty of RIT/NTID and is an avid traveler. His research and development interests are mathematics and science language and learning. In addition, he has done collaborative projects internationally where he trains and develops a teacher training curriculum for future teachers of deaf.

Headshot of Patrick Graham

Patrick Graham


Ph.D., Educational Theory and Practice, University of Georgia

Assistant Professor, Western Oregon University

A long time advocate of equity and excellence in Deaf education, Patrick worked with Dr. Joseph Tobin at the University of Georgia and his colleagues on a Spencer funded research project, studying deaf preschools in Japan, France, and the United States. He is also interested in equity in education, disability studies, multicultural education, and culturally sustaining pedagogy.

Headshot of Kyle Duarte

Kyle Duarte

Board Member

Ph.D., Information and Communication Sciences, Université de Bretagne-Sud

Designer and Interpreter, The Kyle Duarte Company

Kyle is a human-centered design strategist and linguist working in Washington, DC. He currently works with governments and educational institutions to innovate around social and economic change. Previously, his doctoral research considered the practical applications of avatars as a form of accessible technology for deaf users. In his leisure time, Kyle is a wine reviewer and avid traveler.

Headshot of Kurt Gagne

Kurt Gagne

Board Member

Kurt, who is Deaf, is a research assistant in the Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Connecticut. He is currently studying Early Childhood Education with a goal of working with deaf children around the world. Kurt has traveled to Nicaragua several times and has worked with Deaf children and adults. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and children.