Who We Are

Executive Leadership

Headshot of April Janney

President & CEO

April Janney is the President and CEO of Illinois Action for Children. Janney was named to this position in January 2021 after serving as Acting President and CEO since June 2020.

Working with children in Chicago and throughout Illinois to foster positive outcomes has been April Janney's passion for more than 30 years. Prior to becoming President and CEO, Janney served as IAFCs Senior VP of Operations and Senior VP of Programs.

Before joining the Illinois Action for Children leadership team as Director of Provider Programs in 2010, Janney provided school-age programming through a career that spanned 21 years with Boys & Girls Clubs of America and Boys & Girls Clubs Chicago. Janney earned her master’s degree in Public Administration with a focus on Nonprofit Management from Roosevelt University as a Woodruff Fellow and holds a bachelor’s Science degree in Education: Early Childhood and Special Education from Chicago State University.

Headshot of Shauna Ejeh

Senior Vice President, Programs

Shauna Ejeh is the Senior Vice President, Programs, at Illinois Action for Children. Ms. Ejeh provides strategic direction on all services, supports, and resources the agency makes available to parents, families and communities.

Ms. Ejeh comes to Illinois Action for Children having most recently served as the Executive Director of Baby TALK, Inc., an early childhood organization located in Decatur, Illinois, with the mission to support the parent-child relationship during the early critical years. 

Previously, Ejeh served as Associate Director of the Illinois Head Start State Collaboration office working with Head Start programs and other state-level advocates to effect systems-level change for children and families. She received her M.A. and B.A in Public Communication with a minor in Psychology from the American university in Washington, DC. 

Headshot of Sandy Matthews

Senior Vice President,
Organizational Advancement

Sandy Matthews has returned to Illinois Action for Children in a new role as Vice President of Organization 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 - 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.


Vice President,
Early Learning Programs

Mark Barrett serves as the Vice President, Early Learning Programs, for Illinois Action for Children. He is responsible for the oversight of the department’s early learning programs providing leadership and operational direction. In his previous role as the Director, Early Learning Quality Improvement, Mark successfully led IAFC through its first monitoring review by the Office of Head Start and was instrumental in helping the program earn NAEYC Accreditation and a Gold designation in the Illinois ExceleRate Circles of Quality.

Before joining the Early Learning program, he served as the Director of Compliance and Outreach for IAFC’s Family Resources Department. In this role, he provided oversight of compliance, ensured completion of contract deliverables, provided outreach, and customer service support. Before his work with IAFC, Barrett was the Director of Child Development programs at Ada. S. McKinley Community Service, where he managed a $5.5 million budget, managed a team of nine staff and ensured services complied with licensing and accrediting requirement

Mark has over 20 years of experience working with children and families in early childhood education and holds a master’s degree in social work.

Headshot of Jeffrey Gawel

Chief Information Officer

Jeffrey Gawel joined Illinois Action for Children in 2016 as its Chief Information Officer, bringing nearly 20 years of technology leadership and project management experience in the government, higher education, and non-profit sectors. As CIO, he is responsible for directing all technology and data management operations for the organization. Jeffrey previously served as Director of Information Technology at Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago and also served in various technology leadership positions over a 10 year period at the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority. He has also served as a consultant on technology and data projects for various non-profit and higher education organizations. 

Jeffrey earned his Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago and is a PMP-certified project manager. He has served on the faculty of the UIC Department of Public Administration since 2003, teaching courses on technology and data management. 

Headshot of Laci Gatewood

Vice President,
Family & Community Services

Laci Gatewood is the Vice President of Family and Community Services at Illinois Action for Children, bringing more than 20 years of experience in the fields of compliance, informatics, and strategic planning to the Organization. Her expertise stretches across areas such as performance management, operations, quality assurance and improvement, and the identification and elimination of fraud and abuse. Laci delivers a broad variety of presentations on the benefits of streamlining administrative simplification efforts, as well as on the fundamentals of leadership and how it impacts the vision, mission and goals of an organization. 

Laci earned both a Bachelor os Science degree in Computer Information Technology and Management and a Master of Health Care Administration degree from National-Louis University. 

Headshot of Choua Vue

Vice President,
Community Impact

Choua is the Vice President of Community Impact and is responsible for providing strategic leadership and direction for the agency's community systems programs. The Community Impact programs focus on improving families' access to early care and education services in local communities such as North Lawndale and building a statewide training and technical assistance program for early childhood collaborations in Illinois. Choua has extensive experience in policy, advocacy and community organizing on child care and early childhood services. Prior to Illinois Action for Children, Choua advocated for policy changes on education and child welfare for Asian American and Pacific islanders in New York City and for immigrant and refugee rights with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. 

Choua earned her Master's of Public Affairs from Princeton University and Bachelor's degree in American Studies from Carleton College. 

Headshot of Nicole Watkins

Vice President,
Human Resources

Nicole Watkins serves as Illinois Action for Children's Vice President of Human Resources, leading all aspects of HR including: recruitment, employee relations, benefits, compensation, and training and development. Nicole brings more than 20 years of experience in both corporate and non-profit consulting and Human Resources Management. She joined IAFC in 2011 as the Assistant Director of Organizational Development and moved into the Director of Human Resources role eight months later. Prior to her time at IAFC, she worked with Advocate healthcare as an Organizational Development Consultant and as a Human Resource Manager for Majestic Star, Harrah's and Resorts International. 

Nicole earned her Master of Arts degree in Organizational Leadership from Lewis University and a graduate certification in Training and Development from Roosevelt University. In addition, she holds a Master of Science in Human Resources Development and a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies from Indiana State University, with a concentration in Marketing.

Headshot of Teresa Ramos

Vice President,
Public Policy & Advocacy

Teresa Ramos is the Vice President of Public Policy and Advocacy at Illinois Action for Children. Prior to joining IAFC, Teresa was the Director of Community Engagement at Advance Illinois, where she engaged community members in policy, advocacy, and community-building to strengthen the Illinois public school system. Teresa previously served as education organizer and manager of the Grow Your Own Teachers Program at ONE (now ONE Northside). She earned her Ph.D. in Anthropology, focused
on school culture and educational policy, with a minor in Latina/Latino studies, from the University of Illinois Urbana-Campaign.

Headshot of Jacqueline M. Zanders

Chief Financial Officer

Jacqueline (Jackie) Zanders serves as Illinois Action for Children's Chief Financial Officer, bringing more than 25 years of experience in both corporate and non-profit financial management to the Organization. Jackie joined Illinois Action for Children in 2002 as the Director of Finance and continues to lead the finance function and ensure alignment with the Organization's strategic goals. She joined IAFC after spending 10 years as Division Controller for the Food Products Division of Dean Foods and worked as a Financial Analyst for Ford Motor Company. 

Jackie earned her Master of Science degree in Public Policy and Management with a concentration in Financial management from Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz School of Public Policy. She also holds a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from Mississippi State University with a concentration was Business Information Systems and Quantitative Analysis. 

Headshot of Maria Whelan

President & CEO, In Loving Memory
(December 4, 1950 - June 10, 2020)

Maria Whelan had served as Illinois Action for Children's President and CEO since 2001. She led 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. 

Read about Maria Whelan’s Life and Legacy »

An authority in the early care and education field, Maria possessed 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 non-profit 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 served 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 Adviosry Council - Illinois Department of Human Services. 

Maria held a Master's degree in Social Services from the University of Chicago, and a Bachelor's degree in History from Clarke College. She lived in Chicago with her husband and three daughters.