OUR TEAM

Lee Sechrist –Co-Founder, Executive Director, and Board Member

Lee is the Co-Founder of Gratitude Initiative (GI) and he volunteers his time as the Executive Director. He is a former Army officer, disabled veteran, and accomplished business owner who brings over twenty-eight years of organizational leadership and management experience to GI. He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant from Texas A&M University in 1989, and while in the Army, Lee served as an Infantry Officer and as a Military Intelligence Officer.

Lee is an active supporter of veterans’ programs.  For the past nine years, he has been a guest speaker, mentor, and volunteer for Texas A&M’s Mays Business School’s Entrepreneurial Boot Camp for Veterans (EBV). Lee also serves as a member of the Texas Veterans Commission’s Veterans Communication Advisory Committee.

In the summer of 2013, he resolved to do more to support our military families and began bringing together our country’s leading experts in college and career counseling to develop a program to give back to those who have given so much to our country. With the help of like-minded friends and business professionals, GI was born.

Lee and his wife Sherri enjoy spending time with their two grown children, their spouses, and their granddaughter.

Jill Sharp – Board Member

Jill Sharp is Halliburton Vice President of Finance for the Western Hemisphere. In that role, she oversees the finance and accounting organization for North America and Latin America, and is the principal financial advisor to the Halliburton President for the Western Hemisphere.
Ms. Sharp joined Halliburton in 1992 as an accountant. She has progressed through a variety of finance-related roles, including Country Controller for Canada, Global Finance and Accounting Senior Manager for the Production Enhancement product service line, and Senior Controller for the Asia Pacific Region. Most recently, she served as Senior Director of Finance for the Western Hemisphere. Her international assignments have included Calgary and Kuala Lumpur.

Ms. Sharp also serves on the advisory board for Halliburton University, and is a member of the Halliburton Benefits Committee.

Ms. Sharp holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Oklahoma State University, and an MBA from The University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. She is a 2013 graduate of the President’s Leadership Excellence Program.

Dr. James “Buddy” Steele, Ph.D. – Board Member

Dr. Steele is a seasoned learning professional, educator, and digital media expert with over 15 years of experience in the educational technology industry.  His expertise in distance and multi-modal learning, experiential learning programs, and rich digital media has positively impacted educational institutions, nonprofits, and corporations nationwide.  As a researcher, speaker, and published author in the field of digital learning, Dr. Steele brings a wealth of knowledge and experience that directly impacts the families that GI serves.  He is the Co-creator of Gratitude Initiative’s academic programs and supports the delivery of GI’s services to students and families across the globe.

Dr. Steele is the owner of a small digital media and consulting firm specializing in learning programs, corporate training, and educational media development. He is passionate about education and is a lifelong advocate for youth organizations, wildlife conservation programs, and is a proud native Texan.

Dr. Steele holds a B.A. in Film & Digital Media from Baylor University, an M.Ed. in Instructional Technology from Texas Tech University, and a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas.

Jason Loveless – Board Member

Jason Loveless (Principal – JCL Solutions Group) is a seasoned business executive who has been working in the financial services industry since 1999. He is the owner of JCL Solutions Group where he specializes in crafting strategic risk management solutions for individuals, families, and businesses. Jason brings a wealth of non-profit leadership experience to GI working with several non-profits that support our nation’s military and children.

Jason and his wife Ellen are passionate about enriching the lives of children and are devoted volunteers. Both currently serve on the Board of Directors of By His Design Ministries, a non-denominational summer camp ministry serving elementary-aged children that they founded in 2005. Jason and Ellen have two children; one in college and one in high school.

Jason is a former Army non-commissioned officer, serving in the Army Reserves and Texas Army National Guard from 1988 to 1996 with the 420th Engineer Brigade and Company G (Airborne) 143rd Infantry (Long Range Surveillance) in Houston, TX. He graduated from Texas A&M University in 1994.

Brent D. Vander Pol, Lt. Col, USAF (retired)

Brent is a 1989 graduate of the United States Air Force Academy. Brent served in the active duty Air Force from 1989 to 1998 and the Air Force Reserve from 2002 to 2015. During this time, Brent flew the T-38 Talon and the E-3 Sentry. Brent retired as the commander of the 970th Airborne Air Control Squadron at Tinker AFB, OK. From 1999 to the present, Brent has worked for United Airlines, currently as a Captain on the Boeing 757/767. Brent also sits on the board of directors for The Woodlands Youth Rugby Club.

Lieutenant General Richard E. “Tex” Brown III, USAF, (Retired) – Advisory Board Member

General Tex Brown was commissioned through the Air Force ROTC program at Texas Christian University in 1970.  He retired from the U.S. Air Force in 2004 after 34 years on active duty. His last post was as Acting Assistant Vice Chief of Staff and Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel of the Air Force. Before that, he held a number of leadership positions including Commander, Air Force Personnel Center; Director of Joint Matters; Deputy Chief of Staff for Air and Space Operations; and Director of Logistics, Pacific Air Forces. He also commanded an operational fighter squadron, a composite wing, a fighter wing, and has flown more than 3,500 hours in fighter aircraft.  General Brown flew 140 combat missions in Southeast Asia in the A-1 Skyraider and was highly decorated for his achievements in combat operations to include the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star with two oak leaf clusters, and Distinguished Flying Cross with silver and two bronze oak leaf clusters Meritorious Service.

After retiring from the Air Force, General Brown spent eleven years serving in C-level leadership positions for several corporations and on non-profit boards.  He holds a B.A. in Psychology and History from Texas Christian University and a M.A. in Guidance and Counseling from the University of Oklahoma. General Brown and his wife reside in San Antonio, Texas.

 Colonel Gerald (Jerry) Smith, USMC, (Retired) – Advisory Board Member

 Col. Smith is the Director of Veteran Services for the Texas A&M University System and the Director of the Veteran Resource & Support Center (VRSC) at Texas A&M University.   At the Texas A&M University System level, he provides direction, mentorship, and support to the eleven universities that make up the A&M system. The VRSC supports Texas A&M’s Division of Student Affairs vision of preeminence by identifying, developing, and providing uniquely tailored services that enhance academic success and holistic development among Veterans & Military-Affiliated students.  This includes Active Duty, Reserve, National Guard, Military Families, and Survivors. The VRSC facilitates the Aggie Veteran & Military-Affiliated transitions by integrating the Aggie Core Valueswith the foundational VRSC philosophy of Serve Well Those Who Have Served.

Colonel Smith graduated from Texas A&M and was commissioned in December 1982.  In addition to his two combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, his 30 year US Marine Corps career included formal higher education assignments to include: Assistant Professor of Naval Science, Naval ROTC Unit, Houston Consortium (Rice University and Prairie View A&M University); Warfighting Instructor at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College; Seminar Instructor, U.S. Marine Corps Command & Staff College Distance Education Program; and Professor of Naval Science at Texas A&M University. After retiring from the US Marine Corps in 2012, Colonel Smith became the first Director of the newly established TAMU Veteran Resource & Support Center.  His recent Academic and Civilian Awards include the Texas A&M University Excellence in Teaching Award (2011), the Congressional Veteran’s Commendation Awarded by Congressman Bill Flores (2014), and the TAMU John J. Koldus III Faculty & Staff Achievement Award (2015). On August 1st, 2018, Col. Smith also assumed the duties as the Director of the Office of Veteran Services for the Texas A&M University System.

Col. Smith’s academic credentials include a B.A. from Texas A&M University, an M.A. in International Studies from Troy State, an M.S. in Military Studies from the USMC Command & Staff College, and an M.S. in Strategic Students from The National War College.

Dr. Brandi Plunkett, Ph.D. – Advisory Board Member

Brandi Plunkett is the Executive Director of the Center for Executive Development in Mays Business School at Texas A&M University where she is responsible for the overall financial performance and operations of the center as well as the strategic growth and quality of the Global Programs within the center.  Throughout her 28-year career in the education and training field, Dr. Plunkett has developed programs or championed the expansion of programs across multiple areas.  Her last 17 years working within the university system include graduate, administrative and leadership roles at the system and college level, including graduate work with the Summer Seminar on Academic Administration for the College of Education and Leadership Development for the Institute for School-University Partnerships at the Texas A&M University System.  As Program Director for the Emergency Services Training Institute, a division of the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service that trains more than 85,000 students annually worldwide, she created and led the enterprise-based Leadership Development Program and led several other programs within the division.  She was a public school teacher for 10 years, during which time she also trained teachers on the use of continuous improvement tools in the elementary classroom in both Texas and the US.  She returned to Texas A&M in 2000 earning a Master’s and Ph.D. in Educational Human Resource Development in 2006.

Dr. Plunkett’s other professional activities have included lecturing in the Mays Business School for the Department of Management, working with student groups, public speaking in her community and executive coaching.  She served on the Board of Examiners for the Texas Award for Performance Excellence in 2004 and became a member of Leadership Texas in 2008.  She currently serves on the Council of Advisors for the Crestview Retirement Community in Bryan, Texas and the Advisory Board for the Gratitude Initiative.

Dr. Carla Lane, Ed.D. – Advisory Board Member

Carla Lane has an extensive background in distance learning and evaluation of mediated educational programs. She is Executive Director of The Education Coalition, a non-profit that provides educational evaluation services to districts, universities, and other entities requiring local, state and national evaluations. She has been extensively involved in the education field through her research in distance learning. Her work has been published in many research reports and journals. She has authored three textbooks in educational technology and distance learning. Most recently she, is conducting research in online instructional strategies for active military, veterans, and spouses for the Federal Government Distance Learning Association (FGDLA) where she is the Vice President of the Higher Education Sector. Lane spent fifteen years with WestEd, a regional educational laboratory, as a senior researcher and project director of the Star Schools dissemination project – the Distance Learning Resource Network (DLRN). She is the master trainer in distance learning for UCLA, and teaches in several doctoral programs specializing in educational technology and instructional design for online learning. Dr. Lane has written and been funded for grants through Star Schools, PBS Mathline and TeacherlIne, Challenge, NTIA, TIIAP, California Department of Education, the California Community College Chancellor’s Office, US Department of Justice, Los Angeles County Office of Education, and NASA. She earned a Doctorate in Education (Educational Leadership research design/statistics, adult education, educational-technology) from the University of Missouri-St. Louis; a Master of Arts in Mass Communications from Webster University; a Bachelor of Science in English from Washington University, St. Louis MO. She also holds a Broadcast Engineering degree.

Steven Elder – Advisory Board Member

Steven Elder is the Principal of Florence High School in Florence, Texas.  The Florence School District is part of the Fort Hood community of partner schools and Florence High School’s student population includes a large number of proud military children.  Steven has been a public educator for more than twenty years. As a classroom history teacher and coach, Steven sought to provide students with authentic learning opportunities, access to real-world experience, and the development of academic and soft skills needed to succeed in the 21stcentury. Since becoming a school administrator, Steven has developed even more opportunities for students to learn about relevant and high-impact careers, college opportunities, and college and career readiness experiences designed to aid in their future success.

Steven is a graduate of The University of Alaska Anchorage with a Masters of Arts in Teaching and the Texas State University Principal Certification Program. His experience as a seasoned educator and administrator of a military-connected public school provides GI with invaluable insight and support.

Steven is also a United States Army combat veteran having served as an infantryman in the 101stAirborne Division. Steven enjoys reading, movies, and spending time with his wife and three children.

Dr. Steven Guttentag, Ph.D. – Advisory Board Member

Dr. Guttentag is the co-founder of Connections Academy (now Connections Education). He currently serves as the President of Connections Education, now part of the global learning company, Pearson. Connections Education includes: Connections Academy, full-time public virtual schools; Nexus Academy, full-time public blended schools; Connections Learning, providing virtual learning services to school districts and other organizations; and International Connections Academy, an accredited virtual private school. During the 2014-15 school year, Connections Education will operate 36 full-time schools in 25 states working with charter schools, school districts, and state departments of education and will serve an average of 60,000 full-time students in grades K-12. Additionally, the company will deliver over 500,000 additional courses to institutional customers.

Dr. Guttentag began his career as a classroom teacher and has spent the last 25 years designing and deploying technology-based solutions to improve K–12 education. In addition to his classroom experience, he has held several senior school district administrative positions, with responsibilities in the areas of technology, facilities, special education, policy analysis, labor relations, budgeting, restructuring and grants management. He led KPMG Consulting’s Midwest education practice and was the Chief Education Officer for Education Networks of America, a provider of complete, managed internet access solutions to the education community. His academic credentials include a B.A. from the University of Michigan, a M.E. in Teaching and Curriculum from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in Policy and Administration from the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Guttentag lives just outside of Washington D.C. in Chevy Chase, MD with his wife and three boys. He is an active volunteer in his neighborhood schools, a dedicated runner, and avid an supporter of youth wrestling and lacrosse in Maryland.

Brad Ball – Advisory Board Member

Brad Ball is President of Ardent Creative in the Dallas/ Fort Worth metroplex. Ardent Creative is a full-service creative agency specializing in design, web development, SEO and video production. Brad is a graduate of Texas Wesleyan University and brings a wealth of creative and branding knowledge to the GI team. In addition to being President of Ardent, Brad is also a talented artist. He has traveled the country painting on-stage during music concerts or events as well as teaching workshops. When Brad is not doing some form of art he loves playing golf, doing CrossFit, mud races, and spending time with his family. Brad and his wife Leah have three young children.