Creating the future...one frame at a time.

Exceptional Minds Staff and Board Members

ernie merlan
Program Director: Ernie Merlan
Ernie Merlán has over twenty years of experience in the entertainment industry. Twelve years working on Imagineering projects including Indiana Jones, Innoventions, and Tokyo Disney Seas. His television and motion picture projects include Pee Wee's Playhouse,  the Mask of Zorro, Dance with Me and the Legend of Zorro. As CEO of Merlán Creative Studio, Ernie gathers top creative talent to produce content for clients like Disney, Universal, and ABC.“When I graduated from high school, my first gig was teaching special needs. I learned more life lessons from them than they could have possibly learned from me.  It’s funny how life sometimes takes you full circle.  Everyday I come in to the schooI am blown away by the unlimited potential of these Exceptional Minds!”
E-Mail: emerlan@merlancreative.com


Director of Operations: Yudi Bennett

Is a founding member and past president of Foothill Autism Alliance, Inc. (www.foothillautism.org), a non-profit, all-volunteer organization of parents, professionals, and care-givers dedicated to providing education, resources, and support to the autism community.  FAA has been serving the greater L.A. area for the last 13 years. Yudi currently serves on the FAA Board and is actively involved in program planning and family support.  Prior to her involvement in the world of special needs, Yudi worked for 30 years in the motion picture industry.  She received the Directors Guild Frank Capra lifetime achievement award in 2003, and is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Yudi is the mother of Noah, an aspiring filmmaker who was diagnosed with ASD in 1997.
E-Mail: info@exceptionalmindsstudio.org

Instructor: Ian Anderson

Ian Anderson has been creating Flash animations since he was 12 years old. Besides the fact that he is a highly skilled digital artist, Ian is an accomplished pen and inartist and bass player. His passion for animation and video game design makes him a favorite with the students.

E-Mail: andtoyen@gmail.com

Administrative Assistant: Nancy Arnold
Nancy Arnold is a graduate of Pepperdine University, with a degree in Sociology. Straight out of college, she had the privilege of working for Habitat For Humanity as their Public Relations Coordinator and was chosen to represent her affiliate and lunch with former President Jimmy Carter at their annual Jimmy Carter Work Project.  Nancy is currently working toward her Masters in Education, as well as, her Multi-subject Teaching Credential from National University, while serving as Children’s Director for Mission Hills Christian Church and helping assist in the office at Exceptional Minds.  Nancy has devoted her life to serving the needs of children of all ages and abilities and has taught Preschool and Kindergarten in the San Fernando Valley for over 10 years.  She considers the work of teaching, a privilege and enjoys watching her students discover their true talents. But her most important position, by far, has been to learn from and parent her three amazing children, Jessica, Sarah and Bobby.

Instructor: Josh Dagg
Josh Dagg is a graphic artist, digital multimedia creator, and video editor, who has done work for various film and television production companies since graduating from California State University Northridge with a BA in Film Production. Perhaps his best training came from his youngest brother, who was diagnosed with ASD when Josh was in his early teens. This personal experience has shown him the potential for learning, growth, and artistic expression that people with ASD can possess and how they can take full advantage of that potential in the right environment.
Email: JDDagg@aol.com


Instructor: Howard Hoffman
For HOWIE HOFFMAN, involvement with Exceptional Minds combines a dual career in Education and the Arts (And his two degrees in Psychology and Fine Art!).
Soon after receiving a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts to bring animation to the public schools in Williamsburg, VA. Howie moved to New York to do artwork for the birth of Nickelodeon and the launch of MTV. Subsequent stints creating animated content included Art Director (and often Copywriter) for DFS/Saatchi & Saatchi ("Silly Rabbit..!"), Design Director (Nickelodeon's "Doug"), Director (“Action League Now!) and commercial Director (Warner Bros. Classic Animation for MCI, Wendy’s).
On a vacation to his old summer camp (Camp Androscoggin), Howie started a program which for over a decade became the most visible animation workshop for kids in the country), as the kids animated for the likes of Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, and PBS.

E-Mail: hhoff6@aol.com

Instructor: Laura Robinson
Laura Robinson was diagnosed with ASD when she was two, but was fascinated by animated films and live action alike. She knew by the age of 12 that she wanted to work in animation because of limitlessness. She participated in summer art programs at the Chicago Art Institute, the Academy of Art University in San Fancisco, and an animated documentary workshop at Stevens College in her hometown, Columbia Missouri. Laura left Missouri after graduating high school to study Animation at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Her goal is to become a producer for animated television, which she realised when she interned at Cartoon Network Studios and Film Roman.


Instructor: Eddie Sotomayor

Eddie Sotomayor has always been actively involved in the arts. At the young age of seven one of his paintings was featured in a Los Angeles based print publication. He has had a passion for art and design since he was a child and has become rather successful in the creative community. He has worked as a graphic and web designer for over 15 years and is also involved in the music industry. As a self taught DJ, he has had the privilege of playing with artist like Paul Oakenfold, Mark, Lewis, and Swedish Eagle. As a jack-of-all-trades, Eddie has a Degree in Electronic Engineering, an ear for music and a love of design. He has recently joined Exceptional Minds as an Instructor that is bound to encourage and inspire the students.

E-Mail: eddies@level2productions.com


Board Member: Ron Burns
has had a stellar career in business and advertising. For thirty years he worked at J. Walter Thompson, one of the largest advertising agencies in the world. He joined the firm as a young account executive and worked his way up to Group President and CEO, North America. Along the way, Ron was General Manager of the Melbourne office, President and CEO of the Canada office, and ultimately JWT's President, Global Business. Ron was born in Halifax and spent his early years in Victoria, British Columbia. He received his B.A. in psychology from the University of Michigan and did post-graduate studies at the University of London. Ron currently lives in Santa Barbara, CA with his wife, Sally.  Their two daughters, Eliza and Mollie Burns Keith live in Los Angeles and are partners in an estate and contemporary jewelry company. Mollie is the proud mom of PK and Campbell. Ron's son, David, lives in Greenwich, CT with wife Susan and their son Andrew. Ron is on the Executive Committee of the International Tennis Hall of Fame as well serving as the Fundraising Sponsorship Co-Chair for Exceptional Minds.


Board Member: Barbara Helfing
I have a master's degree in Education, and am a credentialed and experienced public school special education teacher, former principal of the Frostig Center for Educational Therapy, former Training and Development specialist for Hughes Aircraft Company and Manager of Training and Development at Transamerica Life Companies. Currently, I am an advocate and consultant for children with special needs and the mother of 2 teenagers with autism, whom I adore.


Board Member: Mollie Burns Keith
has been in the jewelry appraisal business since 1995. As a specialist in fine jewelry and gemstones, Mollie began her career at Christie's New York, where she served as Assistant Vice President and Head of Christie's East Jewelry Department. She subsequently was promoted to Vice President and Senior Specialist of Christie's Los Angeles offices, and was also stationed in Christie's Hong Kong and London offices. She has most recently worked as a Senior Specialist at Bonhams & Butterfields in Los Angeles. She now runs her own company with her sister Eliza Burns buying and selling antique and contemporary jewelry; she also works as a freelance consultant and advisor to trust attorneys, auction houses and private buyers. Mollie earned her B.F.A. in Art History from New York University, as well as he Graduate Gemologist and Jeweler degrees from the Gemological Institute of America, California. Born in London and raised in Australia, Mollie now resides in Los Angeles, California with her two children. PK, aged 10, is an animator and was diagnosed with autism at 2 1/2 years old.


Board Member: Bob Stevenson
Founder and Chief Creative Officer of ngmoco:)
Bob has over 20 years of experience as a Creative Leader and Entrepreneur in the games industry,
His key skills are being an Entrepreneur, Producer, Game Maker, Art/Game Director, Creative Problem Solver, Occasional Mediator, Mentor and Empath.  He loves his Family, Friends, Movies, Music, Wine, Laughter, Playing instruments, Games, Art, Tech, Business and despite his joy of people he has a fear of public speaking! (I am working on it)
In 2008, he co-founded ngmoco:) a Future Entertainment Company that specialize in creating Social Mobile Games that unite and delight the world. With over 100m downloads and over 15 hit games, including We Rule, GodFinger, Rolando, Topple and Mazefinger, they have become one of the key companies in the mobile games industry. They were acquired in 2010 by DeNA: The leading Social Mobile company in the world. Bob plays an ongoing global role as CCO across that quickly expanding business.
Prior to ngmoco, his games have appeared on nearly every major platform in the history of the industry, working with major partners like EA, THQ, Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft, Virgin, Activision and SEGA.

Board Member: Ivan Rosenberg

President & CEO, Frontier Associates, Inc.
Co-Founder and Moderator, The Aerospace & Defense Forum
Ivan has over 35 years experience as a management consultant, working with aerospace, engineering, and scientific organizations.  His clients have included three NASA centers, 19 robotic space missions, ground-based and space telescopes, a number of entertainment companies, and the Entertainment Technology Center @ USC (which focuses on the impact of new technology on the entertainment industry).
In addition to being a consultant, Ivan has been a software engineer, a university professor, founder of a software company (now 31 years old), an IT consultant, and a vice-president of an international franchisor.  He co-founded and moderates the 540 member Aerospace & Defense Forum.  His extensive non-profit activities include being on the Boards of Technology for Results in Elementary Education, the Hewlett-Packard International Users Group, the Association for Strategic Planning, the Institute of Management Consultants, a local council of the Boy Scouts, and the California Wildlife Center.
Ivan has Bachelor’s degrees in Electrical Engineering, Master’s degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and a Ph.D. in Management.
He is married to another Exceptional Minds Board member, Cathee Weiss, with whom he is raising two autistic children.


Board Member: Cathee Weiss
has been a strategic communications consultant and producer in the nonprofit and political world for the last 2 decades. Through her company, REEL LIFE STORY she provides organizations with outreach campaigns designed to inspire and engage participation. Her background includes producing videos for well over 30 nonprofits as well as for the Democratic National Committee, including, "The Man From Hope" and five subsequent videos for the Clinton Administration. She is the mother of two children with autism.


Chairperson: Helen Wu
My son Aaron, now a young adult, was born with autism. He is gifted musically, and is a great jazz aficionado. For several years, starting when Aaron was in preschool, I served as a member of the Chanda Smith Class Member Review Committee which provides oversight of LAUSD's compliance with special education laws. Without the support of a structured school environment, Aaron, and many other young adults living on the autism spectrum, face immensely increasing challenges to remain integrated into the community and to find fulfilling employment. I'm proud to be on the board of Exceptional Minds. I am a partner in a CPA practice in Westwood.

Vice Chairperson: Susan Zwerman
is a highly respected Visual Effects Producer with an outstanding record of accomplishments in film production and visual effects. She began her career in film in New York, where she quickly rose through the ranks from Production Assistant to Assistant Director and Unit Production Manager in both films and commercials. She won a Grammy Award for "Best Concept Music Video" for producing the music video, I'm Fat, starring Weird Al Yankovic. Her credit has appeared on a succession of high-profile feature motion pictures such as Broken Arrow, Alien Resurrection, Men of Honor, Around the World in 80 Days, and The Guardian. She is a member of the Directors Guild of America, the Producers Guild of America, and the Visual Effects Society. Over the past ten years she has planned and hosted numerous technology and visual effects seminars for these organizations and was honored with a Directors Guild of America Honor Plaque for extraordinary service to the guild's Technology Council. She continues to share her knowledge by leading VFX seminars at universities and film schools, teaching visual effects techniques to young professionals just entering the entertainment industry.

Website: http://crystalrain.biz