50th Anniversary

“Aunt Martha” considered as name for couseling center

Study Remedy for Runaways

Mrs. Janice Greenberg was chairman of the Park Forest Youth Commission’s ad hoc committee that analyzed information on a national problem – teenage runaways – that was hitting closer and closer to home in south suburban Cook County by the summer of 1972.

According to the July 9, 1972 edition of the Park Forest Star, more than 100 runaway cases had been reported to Park Forest Police in 1971. In most communities, the only agency actively involved with the runaway problem is the police force.

Seeking incorporation of facility for youths

By the evening of Wednesday, July 5, Mrs. Greenberg’s ad hoc committee had finished its study. The idea to develop a youth service facility to deal directly with the challenges of keeping young people from leaving home, which the politically-savvy committee knew had significant public support, became its official recommendation to the Village.

In fact, that evening the ad hoc committee announced it had already taken steps was in the process of incorporating a youth services facility to be located in the Village. The center would be located initially in the basement of a co-op rental office.

Robert Mondlock, Youth Commission chair, said the facility will be located in Park Forest but “there will be no geographical boundaries” to its services.

“There aren’t too many Aunt Marthas anymore”

After the Commission meeting, Mrs. Greenberg shared a discussion she had with Park Forest Police Chief William Hamby. He remarked that fewer and fewer kids had family nearby who they could talk to when they were upset with their parents.

“I made the comment that there aren’t too many Aunt Marthas anymore,” Mrs. Greenberg said. It stuck.

Jan Greenberg.
Not Aunt Martha.

Who’s Aunt Martha?

The name Aunt Martha’s came from one of the founders who really wanted this organizatio to create an environment where a young person can go, if they don’t feel comfortable going to their parents, and talk about whatever life challenges they were facing.

I picture Aunt Martha to be this caring individual that, you know, if you wanted cookies and warm milk at night, Aunt Martha would do that for you.

But I also see Aunt Martha being tough as hell. She’s not going to let anybody mess with her. No municipality, no faction of individuals that discriminate, that are not embracing equity and diversity and inclusion regardless of sexuality, gender, race, religion, color, medical condition.

Aunt Martha has the ability to cover the range of what needs to be covered, to do the right thing for people. If you had to dissect Aunt Martha, you’d find thousands of people in that makeup.

Raul Garza, President and CEO

Raul Garza, President and CEO.
But also not Aunt Martha.

Gary’s Vision was first shown at last week’s 50th Anniversary Gala. At the event, it was actually shown before the video we shared last week. In this context, it serves as a nice bookend to Part One of Raul’s interview with Gary, which we posted a few weeks back.

This video tells the story of Gary Leofanti’s vision for Aunt Martha’s. It’s a vision he helped to plant – thankfully – in so many of our brains.

A Vision for Social Change

25-year old Gary Leofanti had just wrapped up his first official meeting as Park Forest’s new youth worker when he was asked about the relevance of his background in business and economics. That background, he said was an asset.

“Economic planning is a big consideration in implementing social change,” Leofanti said, according to the Park Forest Star on Sunday, March 5, 1972.

“If one can create a big enough demand for something, eventually it will get implemented.”

Gary’s Vision

An Experienced Change-Maker

Mr. Leofanti didn’t come to Park Forest with vision and education alone. He knew the kind of opportunity he was looking for. He found it and was willing to pay handsomely to move on it. In Park Forest he found a, “a community that was ready to do some things.”

It was his expeience, in fact, that made Gary attractive to Park Forest. He was the director of a youth-oriented hotline and drop-in center in suburban Detroit. He earned that experience at Crossroads crisis information center in River Rouge, MI.

Ultimately, the young social worker’s business background would be as important as his on-the-ground experience. And in a way, he laid the earliest foundation for the concept of value-based social work. He told the Park Forest Star another similarity between business and social work is that the main goal of business is a monetary profit while social work projects aim for profit in a sense too.

“Better service to the people or as in the case of Crossroads, better service to youth,” is the type of profit that social workers seek, he said.

Gary's vision and impact are described by Dr. Pat Robey, a former volunteer worker at Aunt Martha's

Aunt Martha’s is what it is today because of the vision of Gary but all the people who worked with him and who have followed him.

– Dr. Pat Robey, Former Volunteer

Fresh from its debut at our 50th Anniversary Gala, we’re excited to share the latest video from our 50 Years, 50 Stories series. It blends archival footage with stories told by the people who shaped Aunt Martha’s. We hear from Gary Leofanti and Raul Garza. But we also hear from a dozen of our partners, board members, employees and volunteers. We look from their perspectives at the people who are the soul of Aunt Martha’s. What’s clear – from every perspective – is that Aunt Martha’s really does have a soul. And an infinite future.

The Soul of Leader

I’ve been watching Aunt Martha’s for decades, and I’ve watched them grow. I’ve watched them change lives. I’ve watched them develop leaders. I’ve watched them become a very powerful force.

– Shawn Jeffers, Executive Director at Little City and Aunt Martha’s Partner

Leading for the Future

The future of Aunt Martha’s is hopefully bright and one that’s going to continue to grow and continue to take on more and more responsibility to the community.

John Dvorak, President at Wintrust Commercial Banking and Aunt Martha’s Partner

Gary Leofanti and Raul Garza. Aunt Martha's founding President and CEO with our current President and CEO. July 2022. Leofanti was hired by the Village of Park Forest as a youth worker in 1972.
Gary Leofanti and Raul Garza. Aunt Martha’s founding President and CEO with our current President and CEO. July 2022.

How a Listening Ear and $6,000 helped make Aunt Martha’s

On Wednesday, March 1, 1972, a 25-year old Gary Leofanti, “started working to fulfill the expectations of persons who formulated [his] youth worker job description,” by attending his first Youth Commission meeting in an official capacity for the Village of Park Forest. So it was chronicled in the Park Forest Star the following Sunday.

The young man had earned his masters degree in social work from Wayne State University just a year earlier. While at Wayne State, he’d worked part-time for a lobbying organization in Michigan’s state capital, and – through the types of field learning opportunities he’d purposefully sought out – worked with several organizations that would help shape his work in Park Forest.

Gary Leofanti, Aunt Martha's founding executive director. Salem State University. 1968
Gary Leofanti, Aunt Martha’s founding executive director. Salem State University. 1968

Early Influences

So, Gary, what was the inspiration to move from the East Coast and come to the Midwest?

Well, I was working as a welfare case manager for the state of Massachusetts after college, and they had an incentive to go to graduate school. I could pick any graduate school I wanted, just as long as I made a commitment to come back and they paid my salary and I got to go to grad school. I picked Wayne State University in Detroit.

Listening Ear and Reality Therapy

Why did you pick Wayne State? What was special about Wayne State?

Wayne State has advanced field placements with political leaders and advocacy groups, which is what I was interested in. And I had two field placements. One was with a lobbyist in the state capital of Lansing. And I came in contact with the organization called Listening Ear.

And that was where I got exposed to effective listening. That’s what they taught. And later with Aunt Martha’s we would do that with volunteers.

So you brought the science of effective listening to Aunt Martha’s?

Yes. All volunteers were trained that way. And then later we added Reality Therapy. And for a long time Reality Therapy was the method that we used.

Coming to Park Forest

So after you graduated from Wayne State, how did you end up coming to Park Forest?

Well, after graduation, my field placement turned into a job, and I stayed there for about five, six months.

Then I responded to an ad for a youth worker in Park Forest. And I interviewed for the job. And I liked the community and that, that’s the story there.

But you were you were originally committed to going back out east.

Right. I paid back the salary.

So you had to pay back the salary in order to take the job in Park Forest and move to Park Forest?


How much was the salary you had to pay back?

It wasn’t much. Something like $6,000.

Gary Leofanti was Park Forest's first Youth Worker and then Aunt Martha's first executive director

The community was prepared to do some things

$6,000 back in ’72 was a lot of money! Why did you want to make that commitment?

Because the community was prepared to do some things.

You felt that? You could see that?

Yeah. They were there. They just needed some help. So it worked very quickly.

I came in March and by September we had filed articles of incorporation for Aunt Martha’s.

And how many volunteers were you working with when you came to Park Forest?

Well, the Park Forest’s Youth Commission was instrumental in convincing Park Forest to hire a youth worker. So they were organized.

They also had a task group that was looking at the problem of runaway youth in the community. And that’s a group that founded Aunt Martha’s.

So you leave Boston, a city you love, and you had to pay back the salary you were paid because you were committed by the salary to go back to Massachusetts. And you put all that behind you.

And you come to Park Forest and you take this job and then within six months, it becomes Aunt Martha’s Youth Service Center. And then it opened in December of 1972.

Right, with about 30 volunteers and out of donated space. And we had oh, maybe three or four foster families or volunteer foster families so that when it was needed, we had a place for kids to stay for the night.

youth worker on job
Park Forest Star. Sunday, March 5, 1972.

And so when were you asked to be the executive director of Aunt Martha’s Youth Service Center?

Right at the beginning.

So right at the beginning. How old were you at that time?

I was 26, I think.

And you were asked to be the executive director of this start-up, nonprofit, community-based organization looking to serve youth, children and youth who were runaways.

That’s right.

What made you think or what made you believe you could do that at 26 years old?

That I was doing it!

But to be the executive director, though. Did that even mean anything to you to be the executive director or was it just you seeing it as doing the work?

I was just a staff person to the community. And it just it grew and I was there. And eventually I left the village of Park Forest and they gave Aunt Martha’s a grant for my salary.

And the rest, as they say, is history. No matter how much Mr. Leofanti tries to downplay his role.

We’ll explore that history, through Gary’s eyes and the memories of other friends, in future posts.

We Put the Buck in Bucking the Trend

Earlier this month, our President and CEO, Raul Garza, shared exciting news coming out of the latest report on health center cost and quality. Looking at the data for calendar year 2021Aunt Martha’s now has the lowest cost of care among Illinois’ 45 Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs).

But what does that mean, exactly? How far have we come? How low can we go?

Only time will tell, but for now…

What’s happening with health care costs at Illinois health centers?

Over the past seven years, health centers nationally (there are almost 1,400) have seen their Cost Per Patient rise, on average, by 47% – from $827 per patient in 2015 to $1,219 per patient in 2021.

In Illinois, health center costs have skyrocketed at an even greater rate, from $629 in 2015 to $977 per patient last year. That’s an average increase of 53%.

What’s happening with health care costs at Aunt Martha’s?

Since 2015, the cost of care has increased – on average – by $392 nationally and $338 per patient in Illinois. That’s happening at community health centers with a target population that includes those with little and often no income.

Something’s not right.

Then there’s Aunt Martha’s.

At Aunt Martha’s, we made it a strategic priority to drive down the cost of care.

How’d we do? We think the infographic below speaks for itself, but here’s a quick summary:

Since 2019, we’ve lowered our costs by $112 per patient. Aunt Martha’s Cost Per Patient is 41% lower than health centers in Illinois.

Since 2015 – while the cost of care at safety net clinics has gone up by nearly 50% – Aunt Martha’s has achieved its goal of driving down the cost of care by almost 20%.

Four Familiar Faces

Four familiar faces. Almost 120 years of combined service to Aunt Martha’s. They’ve seen the changes. They’ve heard the stories. This week, they describe their experience in their own words.

Franca Liburdi (36 years)

Gary Bevills (36* years)

Iris Williams (28 years)

Mia Collins (18 years)

Oh, and there’s at least one story – which may or may not involve a Billboard Top 10 song from 1979 – that we can’t share just yet.


Franca Liburdi

Senior Vice President of Health Operations

Franca Liburdi is Aunt Martha’s Senior Vice President of Health Operations. She joined the agency in 1986.

Still a Place to Go

Aunt Martha’s is a place where people can come to and get help for what they need. But also, it’s an organization that – if we can’t do it – we’re going to help you find a place that can get you the help you need.

Absolutely Amazing

It’s absolutely amazing to be involved in an organization that can help people receive health care, receive counseling services, receive or even help finding a job or finding other resources to be able to help an individual regardless of  where they come from, what they are, who they are, that we are able to connect them to other services.

Gary Bevills

Senior Vice President of Operations

Gary Bevills came to Aunt Martha’s in 1986 as a 14-year old volunteer. Today, as a Senior Vice President of Operations, he is responsible for multiple segments of Aunt Martha’s health care services, including dental and psychiatry.

“Aunt Martha’s has a Soul”

I started as a 14 year old volunteer with a commitment to wanting to do something. And Aunt Martha’s was the space that made that possibility happen.

Aunt Martha’s has a soul. So even though the the landscape has changed, that soul of patient centered meeting people where they are has not been lost. [There’s] still that passion and that commitment. It just looks a little different now. We’re we’re impacting the lives of communities deeper now than we ever would, or could have 20 years ago, ten years ago.

A Place to Grow and Develop

I look at my personal experience, and Aunt Martha’s was a family, it was a connection. It was a place to grow and develop as a young person and then as a professional.

A story I like to tell is about a medical assistant [at an Aunt Martha’s clinic] 15 years ago. She’s now a licensed clinical social worker. She left the organization after a few years, got her graduate degree and then came back as a provider. You see that over and over again [at Aunt Martha’s].

It’s the soul of making a difference that makes people come back.

Iris Williamas

Vice President, Child Welfare Services of Cook County

Iris Williams is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Vice President of Aunt Martha’s Child Welfare Services in Cook County. She joined the agency in 1995 – 28 years ago.

Coming to Aunt Martha’s Right out of College

It’s like it’s my work family. I basically grew up as a young adult. I came to Aunt Martha’s right out of college, and I have been there ever since.

I’ve seen a lot of changes for the better. And I just love what I do.

Williams oversees Child Welfare Services program, which visits the homes of families at risk of DCFS involvement to understand and help meet their needs, from basic necessities like food and shelter, to social supports, to health care and more. 

“The best thing you can do”

Being able to help people gives me joy. I am a social worker, a licensed social worker. And this is my life. This is what I’m made of. And so helping people is just it’s just exciting. It’s just exciting when you can see that someone has an issue where you go in and you provide assistance and it leaves their family in a better place. I mean, that’s the best thing you can do being a social worker.

Mia Collins

Vice President, DCFS Child Wellness Services

Mia Collins is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and is Aunt Martha’s Vice President of DCFS Child Welfare Services. She has been with Aunt Martha’s for close to 19 years. 

“It’s a Passion”

It’s very rewarding. It’s a passion. Social services is your life’s work. It is not something that you go on to as a job. It’s really an extension of yourself. I’m a licensed clinical social worker. I believe in helping communities. They help individuals and families. And so it’s been ingrained in me since childhood to help others. And this is just an extension of who I am.

It’s a big deal to be connected to an organization that has a reach to communities throughout the state of Illinois. That’s very impactful. There’s a lot of organizations that haven’t made it past five years. We’ve been here 50 years and Our trajectory has only grown.

Breaking the Cycle of Abuse and Neglect

I have a few young people who we served [at Aunt Martha’s] who still reach out to me. They’re in their 30s now, and they reach out to tell me how how they’re doing, how they’re working, how they’re in school, and how the conversations we had in the past still resonate with them.

It feels good to know that I helped plant the seed and it has grown and branched off. And now they have children of their own. They weren’t victims of their circumstances (from their family of origin), but they are actually resilient, know their strength and they broke the cycle. And that’s important.

They say it’s your birthday!

Last week we took a slide show time machine to Aunt Martha’s in the 1970s.

Those pictures captured the enthusiasm of the agency’s early years, even if the context (and sometimes the photo itself) is less than clear.

Today we’re stepping forward into a new decade, but only a few years have gone by.

It’s 1982. And you’re invited to Aunt Martha’s 10th Birthday Party!

Aunt Martha’s at 10

The Setup

Aunt Martha’s welcomed staff, volunteers and community members to celebrate the agency’s 10 birthday. At least one of our guests rode their motorcycle. Does anyone know who?

The Cake

Somebody baked this cake, which looks timelessly and unhealthily sugary.
That’s 1982.

The Balloon Toss

The Fun and Games

And of course, a few of our friends.

…and The Chicken Guy

Slides from the 70s

Do you remember how hard it used to be to take a really great picture? Red eyes, people looking in three different directions. But how about SHARING your pictures? At Aunt Martha’s, we took the whole show on the road. The whole kit and caboodle — organizing slides and feeding them into the projector.

Those slides still tell a very interesting story.

Celebrating our Employees

We’re kicking off our month-long celebration of Aunt Martha’s employees by diving into the agency’s photographic archives. These pictures have been scanned from slides dated between 1975-1980.

Slides from the 70s

Because you always need a good presentation.

An Old Friend

Ron Stuyvesant came to Aunt Martha’s in 1999, wooed from a community-based organization in Central Illinois by Gary Leofanti. The agency – which that year became the first child welfare provider in Illinois to receive Federally Qualified Health Center status – was, despite its stellar reputation, a revelation to the veteran administrator. The next 16 years would be one revelation after another.

We were very glad to sit down with our old friend earlier this year, and we are happy to share a portion of that conversation with you today.

Aunt Martha’s like it’s 1999

When I actually got to the agency, I was surprised. Look, Aunt Martha’s does healthcare! Medical care. There was no agency that I’d ever worked at that did something like this. It was always referring to other organizations and often that would simply be, unfortunately, sending a referral slip. And whether they got the care or not, it was hard to find out.

So I was amazed that Aunt Martha’s did that, did family planning, did substance abuse services, things that most social service agencies were never involved in.

Growing Health Care Services

I was lucky to be there when there was tremendous growth in health care services. Initially, the focus was, “Let’s just add some more services at the health centers we had.” And so we got some grants for that.

Then [the focus became], “We should add some services that are needed,” which has always been Aunt Martha’s forte, and behavioral health services were added. And a lot of community health centers did not want to touch that – a very difficult component to do as part of a community health center.

Aunt Martha’s began to see that there were other communities either that we were involved in, or maybe some that we didn’t have any presence, that really needed community health care. And [the agency] also began to think, “We don’t have to just build health centers. We can partner with hospitals and other community agencies and put health centers where they’re really needed.”

It just continued to grow.

Consistent Commitment to Quality

You need to be able to demonstrate the capacity and the quality of services. And Aunt Martha’s really did that. So we had the documentation needed to show our commitment, our capability to go into new communities and — if not overnight, it seemed like that — get up and running and hire competent people to do the work.

Always Willing to Respond

Even though Aunt Martha’s now is even much bigger than when I was here, they’re still doing the same thing. They’re still offering coordinated, comprehensive services. And if there’s a need out there that isn’t being met, I’m sure Aunt Martha’s is saying, “Why not us? We can do that.” It makes it a very unique, special organization.

A Legacy of Good Will

I went into the bank one day and I think I had an Aunt Martha’s shirt on or something. I went up to the teller, she asked if I worked for Aunt Martha’s.

And when I said yes, she said years ago she went to Aunt Martha’s for family planning services and it meant a lot to her. And that was really a special day for me.

Park Forest

A Community with a Plan

Park Forest began in 1946 as a dream held by Carroll F. Sweet, Sr., to build a “G.I. Town” for returning veterans. Due to the lack of building during the Depression and World War II, the returning veterans and their young families faced a severe housing shortage.

The result was the first post-World War II planned community to include a shopping center and all of the amenities of modern life built in to the original plan. Construction of “For Sale” homes began in 1950.

By the decade’s end,, Park Forest had been incorporated as a village. More than 3,000 rental units – including one that would become Aunt Martha’s drop-in center someday – had already been built.

A colorized photo ca. 1954 shows Park Forest’s Aqua Center from above, looking from west to east. Park Forest’s downtown shops are busy in the background at the top right.

The Goodrich Family

One young family to make its way to Park Forest were John and Therese Goodrich, who moved from the Pacific Northwest. Both would become deeply involved in local organizations and the Village government. They – and their nine children – have been part of Aunt Martha’s story since before the beginning.

Mr. Goodrich passed away in 2014. Fortunately, he and Mrs. Goodrich were gracious enough to sit with Aunt Martha’s historian Bernadette Maune in August 2005. We share a portion of that interview below, as well as some of the conversation we were so happy to have when we caught up with Mrs. Goodrich earlier this year.

From the Youth Commission to Foster Homes

We both knew Gary Leofanti even when he was hired. Here was this young kid, you know, with all these ideas. We were 100 percent behind what he was doing, and the Village Youth Commission and everything. And then we found out that they (Aunt Martha’s) were starting a foster parent program.

It was real interesting because the caseworker came over to interview us…and I think he was a little overwhelmed. We’d told all the (6) kids, you know, you’ve got to be part of the interview. Steve saw all the kids and said, “I don’t think you have to go through the training. You could probably do the training.” So we were a little hesitant.

Rather than diving into fostering headlong, the family opted to join Aunt Martha’s as an emergency foster home.

Part of Our Family

We were emergency foster parents for about three years and by about that time, when the kids had gone off to college. Steve [Aunt Martha’s caseworker, Steve McCabe] said, “We’ve got somebody that needs long term.”

I said we’ll have to have a family meeting. And so we talked about it and I said this is going to be somebody that’s a high school age and going to high school. And we had our three youngest girls who were in high school. I said they probably will know who it is and they will be going to school with him. So we talked about and we said okay so we’ll we’ll try it.

And so Steve brought Rudy over. And the girls went crazy! I don’t think he’d ever been hugged so much in all his life as when he found all these sisters.

And Rudy just became another one of the kids. He went to high school with the kids and all. And to this day Rudy is part of our family.

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