Life-Changing Outcomes for Exceptional Kids

First Children Services Leadership Team

Joseph J. Hess, Jr.


Joe Hess, Jr. is president and co-founder of First Children Services. Joe has spent over thirty years managing for-profit and not-for-profit provider organizations. Prior to starting Mountain Eagle Group in 2004, Joe was CFO, COO, and then President of a national behavioral health provider serving children and adults with a wide range of severe disabilities. In the 1980s, Joe was CFO at Holy Redeemer Health System and oversaw all of their home care and related ancillary services. Joe taught accounting in the MBA Program at LaSalle University and prior to that, taught at Temple University and Holy Family College.

Joe has been instrumental in developing a number of innovative changes in programs and operations over his years in the field, ranging from helping to create a one-of-a-kind neurobehavioral unit for children in severe behavioral crisis to using tax-favored financial instruments to fund the development of new facilities for provider organizations. As a consultant, Joe’s clients have ranged from large public organizations like the Virginia Department of Rehabilitation to smaller, community-based non-profits providing vital services to people with special needs.

In 2009, Joe acquired a school for children with complex medical, intellectual, and behavioral conditions in Fanwood, N.J. and named it First Children. In 2011 with his son, Matthew Hess, he founded First Children Learning Services to provide a wide range of services to children in their own homes and schools. In 2013 Joe acquired Regional Enrichment and Learning Centers and made that a part of the First Children Family of Services.

Over his career, Joe has been active in a number of provider and professional organizations, has published in professional journals, and has made numerous presentations to professional groups.


Matthew J. Hess

Chief Executive Officer

Matthew is the chief executive officer of First Children Services, responsible for operations, business development, financial management and human resources for the organization.  Before transitioning to his current role in 2017, Matt had been the chief operating officer and vice president of operations since the company’s inception in 2009.  Under his leadership, First Children has grown from a single educational program serving 65 children to become a diversified behavioral health and special education organization serving over 1000 children through 17 counties of New Jersey.  Matt is a strong advocate of quality assurance and quality improvement throughout the company, ensuring a continued focus on driving positive outcomes for children, families and the payer community.

Before joining First Children, Matt had various entrepreneurial pursuits in the entertainment and manufacturing industries.  He advises several technology, educational, and healthcare startups in the tri-state area.  Matt studied Economics at Temple University and holds a Pennsylvania Real Estate license since 2009.


Howard Savin, Phd

Chief Clinical Advisor

Dr. Howard Savin provides oversight of treatment models and clinical services along with organization-wide quality improvement systems for First Children Services. Dr. Savin has a profound understanding of the complex needs of children with behavioral health challenges. He has over 40 years of experience working in the behavioral health care field. Prior to joining First Children Services, Dr. Savin served as the senior vice president at Beacon Health Options where he led product development and quality oversight of corporate autism services. Before its acquisition by Beacon, Dr. Savin founded Autism Services Group, LLC, a managed behavioral health care organization specializing in the management of autism insurance benefits on behalf of large health plans and served as CEO as a division of Beacon Health Strategies for four years. Prior to ASG and Beacon, Dr. Savin served as senior vice president, clinical affairs and director of research and training for a national behavioral health provider for nearly ten years.

Dr. Savin is a licensed psychologist in Pennsylvania, and he was formerly a Pennsylvania certified school psychologist and a Licensed Psychologist in Colorado. Dr. Savin holds a Doctorate of Philosophy in Counseling Psychology from the University of Georgia and a Master of Science in General-Theoretical Psychology from the University of Bridgeport. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from the University of Vermont. Over his career, Dr. Savin has been active in a number of provider and professional organizations, has authored a variety of professional publications, and currently serves as an editor for Autism Spectrum News. Dr. Savin has also given numerous presentations on clinical outcomes and the quality and accountability of behavioral healthcare services.


Tara ShortTara Short

Chief Financial Officer

Tara Short is the Chief Financial Officer for First Children Services. At the forefront of financial leadership, Tara is an operationally driven CFO and will be responsible for leading all financial functions of the organization, while supporting the achievement of financial goals and objectives. As an analytical leader, Tara loves to create relationships to drive business growth through financial discipline, creativity, and teamwork. Prior to joining the First Children team, Tara served as the Chief Financial Officer for the Montgomery County Housing Authority in Pennsylvania.

Tara received her Bachelor of Science in Accounting from Post University as well as a Master of Science in Accountancy from Boise State University.


Michael McFarland

Vice President of Administration

Michael McFarland, VP of administration is responsible for the overall strategic planning, partnerships, and management of the human resources function. He is a former practicing attorney and has over thirteen years of human resources experience serving as a strategic partner for both public and private clients. Michael is committed to changing the historical administrative perception of HR by challenging both internal and external stakeholders to form strategic partnerships that will facilitate achievement of organizational goals and objectives. Michael takes pride in building relationships and creating an atmosphere where all staff feel valued for the work that they perform. His motto is “Every Day is a Day in Paradise” which serves him well during even the most challenging circumstances.

Michael graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in History from Trenton State College and received his Juris Doctor from Rutgers School of Law at Camden.


Shannon Vitelli

Vice President of Strategic Development

Shannon Vitelli, VP of Strategic Development is responsible for collaboration with all areas of the organization to increase the efficacy of company strategies and implement new strategies to meet company goals. She brings over 20 years of clinical and operational experience in the field of Applied Behavior Analysis to First Children Services. As a BCBA, she has a passion for ensuring that individuals with autism and their families are receiving exceptional personal care.

Over the past decade, Shannon has turned this passion to help children and their families into a successful company that has helped thousands of children across southeastern Pennsylvania. Prior to joining First Children, Shannon was the founder and CEO of Exceptional Learning LLC. In January 2021, Shannon partnered with First Children Services bringing Exceptional Learning to the FCS family. She continues to utilize a proven track record of developing organization wide systems, improving clinical quality and maximizing profitability for a growing organization.

Shannon received her Bachelor’s degree from St. Joseph’s University and Master’s degree in Education with an emphasis on Applied Behavior Analysis from Temple University.


James Santana

James Santana 

Sr. Vice President – Operations 

James is the Senior Vice President of Operations for First Children Services. In this capacity, James will be overseeing all operational functions of the company, along with growth and strategic planning. Prior to joining the company, James served as the SVP of the largest non-medical home health company in New Jersey. Through his career he has worked as a behavioral health tech, certified nurse’s assistant, and home health aide. As his career progressed James became a Licensed Nursing Home Administrator, Multi-Level Administrator, Executive Director, and Regional Vice President for Senior Living Communities.

James finds passion in helping those in need and supporting the team to provide high quality care that also focuses on operational efficiencies. Throughout his career, his operational focuses have allowed team members to spend more time doing what they love, connecting with the people that they serve.

James received his Bachelors in Developmental Psychology, with a double minor in Business Administration and Economics from the University of Maine, and his Master’s degree in Healthcare Administration from Southern New Hampshire University.


Kathleen McCarthy Gorski, MEd

Principal, First Children School

Kathleen McCarthy Gorski is the principal of the First Children School in Fanwood, NJ. Kathleen began her career in education teaching for 17 years with Bayonne Public Schools. She then went on to become an administrator with Millburn-Short Hills Public Schools, serving as vice principal of the middle school in the district. She later moved on to Cranford Public Schools where she served as a Principal for 8 years before joining First Children in 2010.

Kathleen is a certified school superintendent, principal, supervisor, teacher of the handicapped, and elementary school teacher. She holds a master’s degree in teaching from Marygrove College and a Master’s in Educational Administration from Kean University.

Some of her accomplishments/awards are state model of the Olweus Bully Prevention program, assistant director of the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development-Northeast Region, Principal of the Year-Cranford Public Schools 2003/2004 and NCASES board member and commissioner.

Kathy is a passionate educator and visionary of academic/educational excellence for all children.


Ellen D’Amato, PhD

School Psychologist and Clinical Administrator, First Children School

Ellen D’Amato is the school psychologist and clinical administrator for First Children School. Dr. D’Amato has devoted her entire career to the delivery of services to students with developmental disabilities. As a special education teacher, learning disabilities teacher-consultant, and currently, as a school psychologist, she has developed and implemented intervention programs for students ranging in age from infancy through high school. Her area of expertise is the education of students who have significant cognitive, communication, physical, and medical challenges. She is experienced in the identification and provision of individualized supports to students who have multiple disabilities.

Dr. D’Amato earned her Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from Fordham University where her research focused on the needs of families of students with disabilities. She is the co-author of Tips for Teaching Infants and Toddlers- a resource for parents and early intervention teachers/therapists.

As the school psychologist at First Children, Dr. D’Amato coordinates a multi-disciplinary team of speech, physical, occupational, and behavioral therapists, serves as liaison to local child study teams, and provides educational and therapeutic support to the students, staff, and families of First Children School. She is a member of the Council for Exceptional Children (Division of Early Childhood) and the American Psychological Society- Division 33 (Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities) and Division 16 (School Psychology).


Goldman-featured-140x169Susan Goldman, MEd

Director, Community Educational Services

Susan Goldman is the director of community educational services supervising and recruiting for First Children’s school staffing and home instruction services. Susan received a Bachelor of Arts in education and history at Monmouth University. Susan has served as a middle school teacher of mathematics. In addition to her teaching responsibilities, Susan wore many hats as a mentor, staff developer, teacher leader, peer coach, student council, and peer to peer adviser.

Susan earned her Master of Arts in educational leadership from Kean University and subsequently held positions in supervision and math coaching/consulting. Her experiences and qualifications allow her to effectively recruit and supervise highly qualified teachers and staff for the First Children’s many programs. Susan also oversees and conducts successful educational programs throughout the state of NJ.


Pamela Radel

Director of Administration

Pam has worked for First Children since July 2009 as the director of administration and the director of child care.  Prior to First Children, she worked at Children’s Specialized Hospital from 1972-2009. She worked as a senior nursing assistant in the Mountainside facility and moved to the Fanwood School in 1988 where she became the first infant room teacher in the child care program. In 1998, she became the child care director and stayed in that position until 2009 when she added director of administration to her duties.  Pam has worked with children 8 weeks through 21 years for over 46 years and has loved every moment of it.  She enjoys interacting with the children, whether it be feeding them, reading a story or just watching them grow. Pam keeps in touch with many of her graduates and is proud to say that she was a stepping stone for the terrific young adults that they’ve become.
Pam moved to Fanwood in 1962 and attended St. Bartholomew’s Elementary School and Union Catholic High School. She is a graduate of Kean University with a B.A. in psychology.