The Gem Academy Team
Founder / Executive Director
For the last 14 years Jim has specialized exclusively in therapeutic work with overweight teens and young adults, with an emphasis on immersion programs, long term treatment and aftercare. He has amassed over 5000 hours of direct client work in this specialty putting Jim in a small, exclusive group of clinicians in the world. As a member of the Obesity Action Coalition Jim is a constant advocate and educator regarding the causes of obesity and effective interventions.
His work in this field began in 2007. This was after 4 years as a clinician working with college athletes in the field of sport psychology. Jim moved from Phoenix Arizona to Fresno California to take a position at the world’s first boarding school for overweight teens. During his tenure he held the roles of therapist, clinical consultant, and program director and clinical director.
Among his peers he was known for his tireless determination and commitment to the kids and their families. Mark Twain once said, “the two most important days in a person’s life are the day they were born, and the day they find out why.”
Shorty after Jim began his career at the boarding school his “why” was realized. “There was a level of bravery, sacrifice and hope that I would see every day in the kids. It made you want to be the absolute best you could be for them. With everything they were bringing to the fight, they deserved every bit of that”
Jim’s dedication to the students and their families allowed him to build long standing relationships. Through Jim’s investment and continued involvement with his students and families, Jim recognized the need for a far more comprehensive support structure for recently transitioned students. This became the catalyst for Gem Academy as a long term solution for adolescent obesity.
Gem was born over a decade+ long process of evaluation of prior experience, refined practice, the latest health research and new research into areas of achievement, performance, habit formation and character. But the most critical influence into building Gem has been the shared personal experiences of hundreds of students over the last 14 years. Sharing their successes and challenges has created a better understanding of what is critically needed to support these students for the long run.
Through his professional and educational pursuits Jim has had diverse and eclectic experiences as a tradesman, working musician, on-air radio personality, and collegiate athlete and captain.
Jim is a Wisconsin native but has been a resident of the Phoenix area for 16 of the last 20 years. He and his wife have a seven year old little boy and a four year old little girl.
Tesslyn Wagner B.S., CTRS
Tesslyn (or Tess) was born and raised in Phoenix. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Arizona State University and is a Certified Recreational Therapist. She has garnered experience with teens up through dementia patients working in mental health residential care for the last 2 years where she was consistently recognized for her leadership and compassion.
Tess’ prior experiences also include the adaptive fitness program Ability 360, city programs, and child-life organizations like the Phoenix Children’s Museum. Her person-centered approach to helping others allows for outside of the box learning and creative solutions to take place. Her interest and background in the performing arts has gotten interwoven in her ability to connect and work creatively with her clients in her career.
What drew her to Gem was the ability to have a greater impact with the young ladies she works with and the intentional nature of how the Gem program works to empower our students in all aspects of their lives.
Aria Crawford MSW
Aria Crawford, MSW, graduated from Brigham Young University with an undergraduate degree in Human Development and a master’s degree in Social Work.
She was born and raised in the Bay Area and transitioned during her senior year to Texas for her father’s job. From there, she moved to Utah to attend college, and at nineteen moved to Bolivia (the poorest county in South America) for a year and a half where she did volunteer/ service work. Aria said “it was one of the most humbling, challenging, and growth inducing times of her life” and she is so grateful for the experience. It was there that she learned to speak Spanish.
Along with living in South America, Aria is an avid traveler and has been to over 12 countries. Her interests also include a love of sports. She grew up playing softball, basketball, volleyball and soccer (she even played in a boy basketball league for a while). However, in high school she decided to focus on competitive volleyball and soccer.
While working on her master’s degree, Aria had the opportunity to work with a variety of girls/women, from female prison inmates, to high school girls struggling with the stressors of being a teenager. She’s also worked with kids on the autistic spectrum as a certified Behavioral Technician. In this capacity, she helped kids in the school system to learn appropriate skills to allow them to function in society and the education system.
Aria’s dream has been to one day work with teenage girls. So coming to the Gem Academy is an culmination of her belief in health both physically and emotional, supporting others through challenge and a servant heart. Aria’s genuine concern, compassion and respect for the girls of Gem is evident in everything she does. The opportunity to learn from the girls, as well as play a role in them changing the trajectory of their life is the inspiration that comes with her every day.
Selia Cantarela BA
Culinary & Nutrition Coordinator
Jaid Kennedy BS
Academic & Program Development Coordinator
Jaid hails from Central Illinois and came to Arizona to finish her degree at Arizona State University where she graduated from the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication. She holds degrees in Communication and Public Relations and Certification in Crisis Communication. Jaid has been in the fields of Recruiting and Finance over the last few years with great organizations. A former supervisor noted that she “was always able to lead with aspiration and assertion”. Even during her undergrad while working at Starbucks she was recognized as a high potential associate and was promoted to leadership roles.
But Jaid has always had a passion for working with youth. This led her to being a youth leader with church organization over the past 11 years. She has been a camp counselor for 8 years and most recently has been volunteering with Arizonan for Children which is a Non-Profit visitation and program center for abused, abandoned, and neglected children. Her heart and passion for helping is one of the many things that led us to know that Jaid was a great fit for Gem.
When she is away from Gem Jaid enjoys spending time with family, reading and voluteering.
Lexi Noriega BS
Born in Arizona, graduating Summa Cum Lade from Arizona Christian University. Lexi holds degrees in Industrial and Organizational Psychology and Behavioral Health Counseling. Lexi competed in volleyball throughout her time in college. Having a foundation in sports inherently makes her team oriented and one to motivate those around her. While coaching volleyball along the way, she found a passion in inspiring the youth to transform and grow together to accomplish a common goal.
Lexi’s first opportunity to apply this passion in transformative growth amongst the youth was as a camp counselor for Raise the Vibration and with a local non- profit Mission Listen. As Team Leader she created scavenger hunts, coordinated events aimed to inspire awareness to adverse youth and mentored adverse youth.
A quote Lexi lives by is “How you spend your time is who you become”. While Lexi enjoy’s spending time serving the community, she also enjoys crafting, reading, dancing, trying new recipes, creating riddles, creating scavenger hunts, challenging people to rock, paper, scissors, asking questions and enjoying a nice view…at the top of mountains such as Mt. Humphrey’s and the Grand Tetons.
Ashley Maurer BS
Ashley Maurer graduated Cum Laude from Northern Arizona University with a Bachelors of Science in Exercise Science and minors in chemistry and nutrition. As an avid gym-goer, her understanding of fitness and nutrition primarily focused on the physical transformation. Ashley’s mindset about health and wellness truly transformed once she dove into her kinesiology and nutrition courses as an undergraduate student. She discovered the benefits of using nutrition, exercise, sleep, mind-body connection, and many other lifestyle interventions to enhance health and quality of life.
What first attracted Ashley to Gem Academy was her connection to the purpose of Gem and the girl’s experiences that she could connect with personally. When Ashley learned Gem Academy uses lifestyle & therapeutic interventions as the primary means of treatment with the girls, she was hooked. Ashley brings her affinity for games, fitness and American Sign language (ASL) to the Gem program.
When she is not at Gem, Ashley is a medical assistant with aspirations to become a healing-oriented physician. She loves to exercise, read, and spend time outdoors.