Leadership Council & Staff

PALS THRIVE Leadership Council

The PALS THRIVE Program also includes a leadership council, which consists of two student leaders from each school that come together and discuss issues at their schools, work on projects that benefit the students and the school as a whole, and create outreach opportunities to help support the community. The PALS Council meets bi-monthly during the school year.


Lucy Marrero

UF Health Psychiatry Hospital psychologist

Dr. Marrero is a licensed psychologist who received her Ph.D. from University of New York in 1977. She has worked as a psychologist for approximately 40 years serving as Chief Psychologist, Clinical Director, and Child Psychologist for various mental health organizations. Dr. Marrero has been at UF Health in various roles for over twenty-five years. In addition, she has maintained academic affiliations throughout her career with University of Florida, Vanderbilt University, University of New York, and Santa Fe College. Dr. Marrero has published in major journals and facilitated the Nobel Peace Prize nomination as well as the Sapphire Award for PALS THRIVE.

Dr. Marrero states that the accomplishment she is most proud of is raising two civic minded daughters, whose accomplishments include the founding of PALS THRIVE and volunteering as physicians for underserved populations in the U.S., Africa, Central America, and South America.

Yanel Casanova, LMHC

PALS THRIVE Clinical Coordinator

Yanel received her master’s degree and education specialist degree in mental health counseling at the University of Florida. She is now a licensed mental health counselor and a qualified supervisor. Yanel was a previous PALS THRIVE intern in 2011 and assisted a group of students in founding the PALS LIGHTS club at Buchholz High School. The LIGHTS club was a place where students could support each other by learning how to prevent bullying, learn the signs of suicide risk and learn how to help their fellow students in crisis. Yanel has experience working with children of all ages and their families. She also has volunteered at the Alachua County Crisis Center as a phone counselor and in-house trainer.She has lived in Gainesville for more than 10 years and hopes to eventually see PALS THRIVE at all of the schools in Gainesville and the surrounding areas.

Bercela Banda, LCSW

Part-Time PALS THRIVE Clinical Coordinator

Bercela received her master’s degree in social work at New York University. She is a licensed clinical social worker and qualified supervisor. Prior to earning her master’s, she received her undergraduate degree in psychology from St. Mary’s University in her home town of San Antonio, Texas. Since entering the field of social work, her experience includes working with adolescents, survivors of domestic violence, terminally ill patients and families involved in the child welfare system. She firmly believes social work is the right career for her and is excited about supporting others in their professional development in the mental health field.

Denise Thomas

PALS THRIVE Administrative Coordinator

Denise Thomas received her Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communication and a minor in Communication Studies from Winona State University in Winona, Minnesota. She lived in Iwate prefecture in Northern Japan from 2005-2008 as an English teacher participating on the JET Programme. She spent a year working at UF Health Adult and Child Psychiatry outpatient clinic before transiting to UF Health Psychiatric Hospital. Since 2012 Denise has worked in Business Development for the psychiatric hospital, she started with her current role with PALS THRIVE in 2016 after her involvement with the 2015 PALS THRIVE Roast of Storm Roberts Fundraiser.

Denise serves as volunteer communications coordinator for the Mental Health Coalition of North Central Florida and is a member of the Alachua County Children's Alliance.