The Gem Academy Team

Jim Hershey

Founder / Executive Director

For the last 15 years Jim has specialized exclusively in therapeutic work with teens and young adults that struggle with obesity, with an emphasis on immersion programs, long term treatment and aftercare. He has amassed over 8000 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.


Lexi Noriega BS

Outreach Coordinator & Program Director


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 and enjoying a nice view at the top of mountains such as Mt. Humphrey’s and the Grand Tetons.


Ashley Norwood LPC

Clinical Director & Lead Therapist 


Ashley is a founding member of Gem Academy and has led both the clinical and program departments at different points of her tenure. She is a State of Arizona Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) trained in EMDR (eye movement desensitization reprocessing) therapy. Ashley’s therapeutic pedigree is second to none for Gem Academy. Even while serving as Program Coordinator, she performed all the group therapy work with Process Group, DBT and Body Image group while building the curriculum to fit our students.  She established the robust and extensive volunteer organization network that is one of the hallmarks of the Gem program that allows our girls embrace their intrinsic value by giving back to the community.

Prior to Gem, Ashley was in private practice serving teens, families and couples as well as the first responders community in trauma therapy.  Some of her early clinical experiences had her serving substance treatment and youth corrections communities. Ashley’s three years of service with the girls of Gem gives her a unique insight and understanding of our girls and their experiences and trials that very few others could.  Ashley’s adoration and commitment to our students and families has been evident through her time here and she is a cherished part of the fabric of Gem Academy.

As a native Arizonan, Ashley dedicates much of her free time to her close nit family which includes a brand new baby girl.

Liz McLaughlin

Nutrition & Culinary Coordinator


Liz has an extensive and robust experience in all areas of K12 nutrition education programs. She realized early in her career that her passion was to increase healthy food selection and consumption, and improve student’s eating behaviors. During her tenure in the public schools Liz implemented multiple programs and initiatives including Farm to School, Salad Bars to
Schools, Chefs to Schools, Second Chance Breakfast, and as a Smarter Lunchrooms Movement Technical Assistance Provider encouraged other school nutrition professionals to lead the way.

Liz completed the Minnesota Association of School Business Officials Leadership Academy 2017 Cohort and served as Minnesota School Nutrition Association 2018 Chapter President of the Arrowhead Region. She participated as team member of the Minnesota Department of Education and Minnesota Department of Agriculture planning committee for the Harvest of the Month 2021 Pilot Program.

Liz has experience delivering evidence-based interventions and curricula that focuses on good nutrition, stretching food dollars, living physically active lifestyles, and engaging partners to build
healthier communities. As a nutrition educator Liz led classes in public, private and alternative school, after school and summer program settings and collaborated with partner organizations using a variety of curricula such as Live it, Real Life Nutrition for Teens, Cooking Matters for Teens, Go Wild with Fruits and Vegetables, Go Wild with Whole Grains, Cooking is a SNAP and I Can Prevent Diabetes.

Liz and her husband are native to Minnesota where they along with their careers managed a private seasonal campground. They moved to Arizona in 2022, and live in the Phoenix area with their four-teen-year old son, twelve-year old daughter and two Yorkshire Terriers. Liz enjoys spending time with her friends, family and fur babies, entertaining, shopping, camping, hiking, and going to her children’s sports activities and programs.