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A mission well served

Aug 17, 2023

Annette Skafgaard retiring from St. Coletta’s of Illinois after 17 years of service

Ask Annette Skafgaard to speak at a public event and she’ll wince. Ask her to speak about Transition Town and the special education programs at St. Coletta’s of Illinois and you may never get her to stop talking.


“When she gets talking (about St. Coletta’s of Illinois), you need a hook to rip her off the stage,” said Andrea Ramirez-Justin, chair of the nonprofit’s Board of Directors.


Skafgaard — who retires this month -- has been advocating for children and adults with developmental disabilities since joining St. Coletta’s 17 years ago. She never misses an opportunity to talk about the nonprofit’s mission or take someone new on a tour of Transition Town – a colorful “village” inside Kennedy School where students ages 14-21 receive simulated on-the-job training in such fields as baking, retail services and central purchasing.


Skafgaard came up with the idea in 2017 and commissioned local artist Raye Ann Saunoris to bring the vision to life by creating a row of storefronts, including a bakery, a general store and a laundromat, in a classroom wing.


The goal was to help students “transition” from the classroom to adult life by teaching them independent living skills (such as how to do laundry) as well as vocational skills (such as retail services and janitorial training).


It’s now one of St. Coletta’s most popular programs.


“Annette had this vision,” said Ramirez-Justin, “and she made it happen.”


The executive director is a tireless advocate for St. Coletta’s students, parents, adult participants and staff. She’s up early looking for grant opportunities to supplement St. Coletta’s programs and often attends community meetings in the evening to promote St. Coletta’s mission.


But after 17 years of steadfast service, the executive director says it’s time to turn the mic over to someone new. She retires at the end of August. Heather Benedick, the organization’s Chief Operating Officer, was selected to take her place.


“God has blessed me with many wonderful colleagues, community partners, board members, donors and families through the years,” said Skafgaard. “I am grateful and proud to have served alongside all of them, furthering the mission that the founders of St. Coletta’s of Illinois, the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, created 74 years ago.”


Based in Tinley Park, St. Coletta’s of Illinois provides educational, residential and vocational training services to more than 300 children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.


Skafgaard, who started her career in public accounting, joined the organization in 2006 after seeing a job posting for finance director. She was working in healthcare finance at the time and was intrigued by St. Coletta’s service-driven mission shaped by the Franciscan values of service to the poor and marginalized.


“I was looking for something mission oriented,” she explained. “I wanted to do something greater by finding a job with purpose.”


Five or six years later, her role expanded to include oversight of operations as well as finances. In 2016, she stepped into the role of Executive Director.


“It’s a challenging field, said Skafgaard. “You’re always problem solving, adapting to changes in the industry, raising funds outside your funding source and making your resources stretch – all while providing the best quality care you can.”


Skafgaard’s strong financial background, compassionate heart and tenacious leadership skills have been a perfect combination for St. Coletta’s of Illinois, said Ramirez-Justin.


“She is a genius with numbers and exceptionally creative,” said Ramirez-Justin.


When COVID-19 forced the closure of schools and businesses in 2020, it was Skafgaard’s strong leadership skills and problem-solving skills that kept St. Coletta’s mission moving forward. The school switched to remote learning and residents from the two dozen group homes were provided services in their homes where it was safe.


Skafgaard and her team of administrators would meet daily, checking in with each group home to see what they needed and then deliver the supplies – whether it be toilet paper, face masks or medicines – to each home.


Just getting the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) was a challenge during those early days of the pandemic, said Ramirez-Justin, recalling how they worked with municipal leaders and legislative partners to secure the items – often meeting in parking lots late because that’s when a new shipment of face masks and hand sanitizers would arrive.


“She’s very dedicated and always takes (problems) in stride,” said Ramirez-Justin.


“Annette has provided outstanding leadership to St. Coletta’s, its clients and its contributors,” agreed Foundation Chair David Seaman. “She’s led St. Coletta’s through some challenging times, especially during the COVID crisis, working to keep clients and staff safe.”


Supporting her behind the scenes was her husband Don, a compassionate, kindhearted individual who accompanied the executive director to many fundraisers and acquiesced to her late nights and weekend duties.


Just like his wife, Don had a giving heart. When he won the raffle pot at one of St. Coletta’s Trivia Nights, he quietly gave the money back to St. Coletta’s.


Skafgaard has done the same with her salary, donating regularly to St. Coletta’s mission and quietly declining pay increases from the Board of Directors.


“This is who she is. This is what she does,” said Ramirez-Justin. “She has such a giving heart and has done things like that throughout her entire career.”


While she may be stepping down from her leadership role and day-to-day duties at St. Coletta’s, the mission-driven Skafgaard says she will always be available for support and service.


“I still hope to be involved and support St. Coletta’s for many years to come,” she said. “Once you get involved and get to know the people you serve, you’re hooked for life.”


“Annette’s retirement is well deserved,” said Seaman, “and her St. Coletta’s legacy will be felt by the clients she served for generations to come. We wish her and her family all the best!”

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