Remembering the Life and Legacy of Maria Whelan, Illinois Action for Children’s Beloved Leader

June 12, 2020

Headshot of Maria WhelanIllinois Action for Children is profoundly saddened to announce the sudden and unexpected passing of Maria Whelan, our beloved President and CEO, on June 10, 2020.

Maria was our leader, friend, and champion. For nearly 50 years, she was a strong, fierce, and relentless advocate for children and families in Illinois and throughout the country.

From the moment she became the President and CEO of Illinois Action for Children in 2001, Maria was singularly dedicated to fulfilling the organization’s mission of organizing, developing, and supporting strong families and powerful communities where children matter most. She pushed the state of Illinois every day to face hard truths and make the most vulnerable residents of Illinois a priority in every decision that was made. Maria was unwilling accept anything less as she honored the legacy of Illinois Action for Children’s founder, Sylvia Cotton (1913-2008), a lifelong advocate for social justice and civil rights.

“She was a compassionate warrior, relentless in her fight for children and for social, economic, and racial Justice. She did that through her early childhood work as a way to lift up all families. She made us better. She made our early childhood system better. She made IDHS better. She made our state and country better.” Grace B. Hou, Secretary, Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS)

Under Maria’s leadership, Illinois Action for Children greatly expanded its scope, reach, and impact. The creation of our Healthy Food Program, the expansion of our advocacy efforts to be a real force in early childhood policy in Illinois, the development of Innovation Zones that connect critically-important resources in some of Chicago’s most underserved communities and led to our transformative statewide Community Systems Building work, and the move into direct early childhood service with our Early Learning Program centers in Chicago’s South and West suburbs are just a few of the tangible accomplishments brought forth by Maria’s vision.

Maria attended Clarke College in Dubuque, IA and earned her Master’s Degree at the University of Chicago. Before joining Illinois Action for Children, Maria served for 15 years as the founding Executive Director of the Carole Robertson Center for Learning on Chicago’s West Side. The Carole Robertson Center is named in memory of Carole and the three other children killed in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Maria struck a friendship with Carole’s mother Alpha Robertson that remained until Alpha’s passing in 2002.

Maria also served as the Director of Children’s Services for the Chicago Department of Human Services, and as a Senior Program Officer at The Chicago Community Trust. A leader in the field, Maria brought the power of her decades of experience to bear as a member of Illinois Early Learning Council, the Illinois Network of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies (INCCRRA), and other early childhood taskforces, helping drive and shape transformational policies that expanded access to care and education for children and families throughout the state.

Her unwavering commitment to community programs that make a significant and lasting impact on children and families has been recognized through special awards from the Illinois Women’s Agenda and Illinois Small Business Association. In 1988, Maria was awarded the Community Service Fellowship from The Chicago Community Trust, to focus on national and international child development and family support systems.

“Maria Whelan devoted her career to improving the lives of children, families and communities. It’s with a heavy heart that I offer my condolences to her family, friends and colleagues. Her legacy will no doubt continue to shape Illinois’ education and human services landscape.” JB Pritzker, Governor, State of Illinois

In 2019, Maria received the National Black Child Development Institute’s (NBCDI) Guardian Award. This award is presented each year to an individual who has shown extraordinary commitment to improving the quality of life for Black children and their families through education and advocacy.

Maria Whelan is survived by her husband, Jack Wuest, their three daughters, three grandchildren, and nine brothers and sisters. Our deepest sympathies are with Maria’s family, friends, and colleagues.

“This is a tremendous loss for everyone associated with Illinois Action for Children and the early care and education field. Children and families across Illinois have lost one of their strongest and most passionate voices, and hers is a voice that cannot be replaced. The Board sends our heartfelt condolences to Maria’s family at this incredibly difficult time. We must allow ourselves this time to grieve, while also knowing that Maria would want us to go back out there and fight like hell for the children and families that this organization has fought so long for.” – Celena Roldan, Chair, Illinois Action for Children Board of Directors

Illinois Action for Children’s Board of Directors has named April Janney, Senior Vice President of Operations, as acting President and CEO of the Organization.

We invite you to share a message, story, and/or picture about Maria here. These sentiments will be shared with her family.

About Illinois Action for Children

Since 1969, the nonprofit organization Illinois Action for Children has been dedicated to creating the foundational conditions that allow young children to reach their full potential in school and life. As a state and national leader in early childhood care and education, IAFCs programs, services, and advocacy improve learning and life outcomes for children and families, including reducing the effects of poverty. Our goal is for all children from diverse social, economic and cultural backgrounds to thrive.