Gary Leofanti

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

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.

File Under ‘O’

When we talk to people about their memories of Aunt Martha’s, some stories can only be cataloged as “Other.”

This week, we follow board members (and Others, of course!) from the board room to the back nine, with a stop or two along the way.

We’ll hear about an unexpected visit from the Sisters of the Salvation Army. And we’ll imagine what might have been by lifting the lid on a story that’s no waste of your time.

The Cigars

What really stands out, back when I was President [of the Board], working with Gary, we had golf outings. Gary and I used to sit out on a golf cart at one of the holes, and the greatest thing was all of the cigars Gary used to bring.

Gary brought a bag full of cigars and every golfer came to our hole because they knew he had those cigars.

That’s what stands out. Sitting there in that golf cart with about 250 cigars. And enjoying some of them ourselves.

John Annis

Those Big Trucks Keep Rolling

All of the sudden, [Gary] brought this great plan to the Board – to invest in the waste management company.

I said, “What the h*** do you mean, ‘waste management’? We’re not cleaning up garbage cans, we’re raising babies!”

I fought him tooth and nail on it because I thought it was such a terrible thing to bring into a social service organization.

Every time I see one of those big trucks passing down the street, I see all the money we could have made on that investment.

But that’s where my head was. And like I said, those big trucks keep rolling.

Gwendolyn Bowen

‘The Kind of Stuff that Makes it Work’

I was working with a client [at the drop-in center] and it was a was a nice summer evening. So we went out, across the street and sat down in the parking lot next to the church.

We’re down there, laying on the asphalt, chatting. And Gary shows up with a carload of ladies!

I later learned that they were ladies from the Salvation Army who were looking at [Aunt Martha’s] to decide about funding.

Later I said to Gary, “Why didn’t you tell me that they were coming?”

He said, “They saw what you were doing and thought it was wonderful. They said, ‘That’s the kind of stuff that makes it work.’”

Lindy Willis

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