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How an invitation to tour St. Coletta's changed one man's life, career path

Jul 28, 2022

Paquito Yu never considered working with the developmentally disabled until he visited St. Coletta's

Paquito Yu was working at a restaurant, putting his degree in hotel and restaurant management to use, when a customer saw something greater in him.

“You should come join us at St. Coletta’s of Illinois,” Yu remembers the gentleman telling him. “Come for a visit and I’ll show you the facility.”

Curious, Yu arranged to tour the facility, which at that time served just over 100 children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The tour proved to be life altering.

“I fell in love with the place,” said Yu. “It was so beautiful, so quiet and peaceful.”

The Sisters of St. Francis who founded the organization in 1949 added a monastery feel to the church, school and grounds in Palos Park, providing a safe place for the children and adults to live, work and learn.

“I was introduced to all the cottages (where the participants lived),” said Yu, “and I knew right away I belonged there.”

He left his job at the restaurant and joined St. Coletta’s in its mission to serve children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

That was 1989. Now 33 years later, Yu continues his work at St. Coletta’s, making sure individuals are well cared for and living life as independently as possible.

He no longer works at the Palos Park campus, however. A year into his service, administrators decided to deinstitutionalize the organization by closing the cottages and moving residents into group homes in neighborhoods throughout the south and southwest suburbs.

They later sold the campus and its aging facilities to a developer so they could build a new school and vocational center in Tinley Park.

Yu was one of the first employees asked to leave the Palos Park campus and assist with the opening of a Community Integrated Living Arrangements (CILA) home, also in Tinley Park.

He accepted the challenge and welcomed six participants to their new home.

“I remember how (the participants) arrived one-by-one with their families,” said Yu. “They were just 18 or 19 years old then. Now, they’re in their 50s.”

Watching the individuals grow into adulthood while helping them with the cooking, cleaning and life skills in general has been rewarding for Yu.

“It’s like I’m raising my own children,” he said.

The group has formed a special bond through the years, staying together when St. Coletta’s moved them to a new group home in Orland Park several years ago.

“I like Paquito,” said Matt G., one of the group home residents. “We like to have him here. I don’t want him to go anywhere else but here.”

“He’s nice,” added housemate Gary M. “He takes us out to eat.”

Food is a common topic among the residents. Usually, when Yu arrives at the home for his 8 ½-hour (sometimes 15 ½-hour) shift, he’s greeted with the same question: “What’s for dinner?”

“It’s a surprise,” he likes to tell them.

Yu is one of six team members who helps keep the home running on a daily basis. They rotate throughout the day, making sure someone is with the residents 24 hours a day.

Five days a week, the residents are driven to St. Coletta’s Tinley Park campus where they receive recreational therapy, participate in contracted work projects and meet with clinical therapists who assess their needs and design individual treatment plans.

At home, the residents help with the daily chores. Matt likes to sweep the floors and keep the bathroom tubs, sinks and showers clean. Kevin K. empties the garbage and helps two others with their laundry because they are unable to go downstairs where the washer and dryer are located.

John S. likes to dust the furniture, and Jeff C. likes to unload the groceries from Yu’s car and carry them in the house.

Sunday is Yu’s favorite day with the residents. That’s the day he takes them to their respective churches (one Greek Orthodox, two Roman Catholic and one Presbyterian) and then out to lunch at a restaurant or a picnic at a nearby lake where they can walk around, feed the ducks and enjoy the fresh air.

“I want them to experience what others experience,” he said. “I want them to be happy.”

Looking back, Yu wonders what the gentleman from the restaurant saw in him that day he invited him to tour St. Coletta’s. He never asked, and the gentleman -- St. Coletta’s former Executive Director Wayne Kottmeyer -- passed away several years ago.

Whatever it was, Yu is glad he took him up on the offer to tour St. Coletta’s.

“I love this job,” he said. “I have no intention of leaving. I love this place.”

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