Announcing the Development of the Maria Whelan Leadership Institute As We Mark the 1-Year Anniversary of Maria’s Passing

June 10, 2021


Chicago – Maria Whelan was Illinois Action for Children’s leader, a dear friend to many, and a true believer that children matter most. She spent her 50-plus year career as a strong, fierce, and relentless advocate for children and families in Illinois and throughout the country. Today, as we mark one year since her tragic passing, we are honored to announce the development of the Maria Whelan Leadership Institute (MWLI).

Maria believed that the best ways to support children included supporting and partnering with the adults in their lives—especially the teachers, the providers, the staff, and the advocates—who are the child care and early education workforce. These are the people who teach, nurture and care for children during the times their parents cannot.  

We know through brain science that the first five years of a child’s life are the most important for brain development, learning, and social-emotional preparedness. Yet, in America, child care workers consistently rank in the bottom 2nd or 3rd percentile of wage earners in the U.S. labor market and only 26 percent of children in Illinois enter kindergarten ready to succeed. Maria knew that these things were fundamentally wrong and needed to be addressed to ensure children thrive.

With that in mind, Illinois Action for Children assembled a committee comprised of Maria’s peers, IAFC colleagues, and members of her beloved family to create an impactful initiative that will honor her legacy and advance IAFCs mission.

“The Maria Whelan Leadership Institute will be designed to focus on strengthening the early childhood workforce by fostering the growth of the next generation of leaders,” said April Janney, President and CEO of Illinois Action for Children. “We are laser-focused on continuing and amplifying Maria’s desire to create more equitable opportunities for early childhood professionals across the field.”

The MWLI will:

  • Develop leaders and advocates who will help redefine excellence in the ECE workforce.​
  • Advance racial, gender, and economic equity for child care providers, families, and children.​
  • Grow the pipeline of highly-skilled professionals and advocates to ensure the stability of the early childhood workforce.​
  • Increase high-quality providers/educators who will provide children with excellent, equitable academic and developmental experiences.

To-date, the Maria Whelan Legacy Fund has received donations and pledges from individual donors and foundations totaling more than $700,000.

“Maria Whelan was an absolute force of nature, it’s as simple as that,” said Carol Ronen, co-chair of the MWLI Committee, former Illinois State Senator, and longtime friend. “Maria went to bat every day for the people that dedicate their lives to taking care of our children—that is one of her greatest legacies and is what we hope to honor and move forward with the Maria Whelan Leadership Institute program.”

Through the MWLI, we will identify individuals with strong leadership potential who can build and stabilize the pipeline of professionals for the ECE workforce—creating a cadre of passionate leaders who will become powerful advocates on behalf of children, families, and their fellow providers and teachers.

Maria Whelan Leadership Institute participants will:​

  • Partner with nonprofits and community-based organizations for hands-on experiences.
  • Gain exposure to field experts and policy leaders​.
  • Participate in research projects and professional networking opportunities.
  • Apply the skills they learn as a mentor to subsequent program participants.

“My mom dedicated her life to supporting families throughout the state of Illinois through her work and the mission of Illinois Action for Children,” said Catherine Merritt, one of Maria’s three daughters, and a new member of the Illinois Action for Children board of directors and MWLI Core Committee. “My father, sisters and I can’t think of a better way to honor her life’s work than helping create the next generation of fierce early childhood advocates, fighting on the front lines to create a brighter future for all our children and the people who care for them.”

For more information on the Maria Whelan Leadership Institute, including how to donate, please visit our website.


About Illinois Action for Children:

As a state and national leader in the early care and education field, Illinois Action for Children is distinguished by its “Strong Families, Powerful Communities” approach to child development, Pre-K and Head Start, and other family and community supports. Learn more at