Maria Whelan, President & CEO
Maria Whelan has served as Illinois Action for Children's President and CEO since 2001. She leads the organization's mission to support strong families and powerful communities where children matter most, through the advancement of innovative human services programs and responsive public policies that improve conditions for children and families in Illinois.
An authority in the early care and education field, Maria possesses over 30 years of experience in human services. Prior to joining Illinois Action for Children, she served as the founding Executive Director of the Carole Robertson Center for Learning, a multicultural nonprofit partnership among parents, youth and communities on Chicago's West Side. Her leadership has been recognized through special awards and fellowships, including the Community Service Fellowship from the Chicago Community Trust, and Leadership Greater Chicago. She currently serves on several boards, including the Illinois Early Learning Council, Illinois Network of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, Early Childhood Advisory Committee - Chicago Public Schools and Illinois Child Care Advisory Council - Illinois Department of Human Services.
Maria holds a Master's degree in Social Services from The University of Chicago, and a Bachelor's degree in History from Clarke College. She lives in Chicago with her husband and has three daughters.
James A. Alexander, Vice President, Strategic Planning and Execution
James "Jim" Alexander joined Illinois Action for Children as the Vice President of Strategic Planning and Execution in August 2009, after several years of service as a volunteer and member of the Board. Jim comes to this work with more than two decades of broad and diverse management experience, which he draws from to oversee and develop multiple strategic development processes and initiatives, and collaborate with managers and departments across the organization. Before coming to Illinois Action for Children, Jim served for six years as Executive Director of the Inner City Teaching Corps (ICTC), a nonprofit education organization that helps empower children in the most under-served areas of Chicago.
Alexander earned both his J.D. and Bachelor's Degree from Yale University, and is a native of Memphis, Tennessee.
Leonette Coates, Vice President, Family and Neighborhood Partnerships
With more than four decades of accomplishments and experience in social services, Leonette Coates serves as the Vice President, Family and Neighborhood Partnerships for Illinois Action for Children. She works to develop programs, build social networks and increase supports to address family challenges associated with poverty. She has also served as Chief Program Officer of Illinois Action for Children and Director of the MOST (Making the Most of Out of School Time) program. Prior to her time at Illinois Action for Children, Leonette served for 15 years in program administration at the Harold Colbert Jones Community Center in Chicago Heights. She also serves on the Illinois Network of Child Care Resource and Referral Leadership team and several other boards and organizations that are committed to improving outcomes for children and families.
Leonette earned her Master's degree in Early Childhood Education from the Erikson Institute at Loyola University and holds a Bachelor's of Science degree in Social Work from Illinois State University. She is an active member of her community and a proud wife, mother, and grandmother.
Julie Gray, Chief Operating Officer
Julie Gray brings more than 25 years of experience in finance, operations management, and program oversight to Illinois Action for Children with a proven record as an effective administrator of substantial government and nonprofit operations. She joined Illinois Action for Children in 2001 as the Chief Operating Officer and directs, administers, and coordinates all day-to-day operations of the organization. She served as the Director of Lakefront Operations for the Chicago Park District for eight years prior to joining Illinois Action for Children and was recognized in 2001 as a finalist for the Kathy Osterman Award for outstanding public service.
Gray earned her MBA from The University of Chicago, and holds a B.A. from Carleton College in Economics. In summer 2006, she completed an intensive studio-based architecture program at Harvard University's Career Discovery program.
April Janney, Chief Program Officer
Working with Chicago’s youth to foster positive outcomes has
been April Janney’s passion for more than 25 years. Now serving as the Chief
Program Officer of Illinois Action for Children with the oversight of the
organization’s Family Resources and Provider Programs departments, Janney
continues this commitment. Prior to joining the Illinois Action for Children
leadership team, Janney provided school age programming through a career that
spanned 21 years with Boys & Girls Clubs of America and Boys & Girls
Clubs of Chicago.
Janney earned her Master’s degree in Public Administration,
Nonprofit from Roosevelt University as a Woodruff Fellow and holds a Bachelor’s
of Science degree in Education: Early Childhood and Special Education. She received
the Athena (Business Woman of the Year) award from the Uptown Chamber of
Commerce in 1997 for her youth development work in the Uptown Community.
Tom Layman, Vice President, Program Development
With more than 30 years of leadership in Chicago's early care and education community, Tom Layman serves as the Vice President of Program Development for Illinois Action for Children. Layman oversees the agency's early learning programs, which operate in collaboration with child care centers and community-based organizations and include Illinois Preschool for All, Early Reading First, and various other training programs and community planning initiatives. Layman collaborates with staff, community residents, and potential funders to develop and implement new programs that meet the needs of low-income, working families. Prior to joining Illinois Action for Children, Laymen spent 21 years as the Executive Director of North Avenue Day Nursery and eight years as the Executive Director of the Chicago Metropolitan Association for Education of Young Children.
Layman earned a Master's degree in Early Childhood Leadership and Advocacy from National-Louis University as part of the McCormick Fellows program. His work in the program included a thesis on the usefulness of child assessment information, and laid the groundwork for his subsequent career accomplishments.
Sandy Matthews, Vice President, Organizational Advancement
Sandy Matthews has returned to Illinois Action for Children in a new role as Vice President of Organizational Advancement after serving as Chief of Staff to the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education. In this new role she is responsible for organizational relationship development, building strategic partnerships, and generating revenue through foundations and corporate donors. Prior to her position in the Obama administration, she was Vice President of External Relations at Illinois Action for Children from 2007 to 2010.
Sandy possesses more than 20 years of public affairs and communications experience with a variety of organizations including the Chicago Sun-Times, the Michael & Juanita Jordan Foundation, and the City Colleges of Chicago. A graduate of North Central College with a B.A. in English and French, Sandy earned a Masters of Jurisprudence in Child and Family Law from Loyola Law School in Chicago. She lives in Chicago and is married to Gary Matthews, former Major League Baseball player for the Chicago Cubs. They have one daughter and four sons.
Nancy "Sessy" Nyman, Vice President, Policy and Strategic Partnerships
As the Vice President of Policy and Strategic Partnerships, Sessy Nyman directs state and federal legislative strategy and coalition building for Illinois Action for Children. Her leadership and advocacy efforts have contributed to an increase of state resources invested in early care and education by more than $160 million. In addition to negotiating legislative outcomes and spearheading administrative advocacy to state agencies, Nyman manages statewide campaigns for policy change and increases in fiscal expenditures; creates partnerships with community organizations, parents and faith-based initiatives; and develops grassroots organizing activities and strategies. She has a long-standing professional history in advocating for vulnerable populations, including her work as the Director of the Violence Prevention Project for the Alliance for Logan Square Organizations.
Nyman earned her Master's degree in Cultural Geography from The University of Massachusetts - Amherst and holds a Bachelor's degree in Government and International Relations from The University of South Carolina. She resides in Chicago with her husband and daughter.