Jack Ryan — Outgoing Little Friends CEO reflects on his accomplishments and retirement plans

June 2012 View more

NMAG0612_NeighborhoodThirty-nine years ago, when Jack Ryan, CEO of Little Friends, first joined the staff of the non-profit organization that serves individuals with developmental disabilities, many things were noticeably different than they are today. Educational opportunities in the public schools did not exist, vocational options were almost nonexistent, and the recognition of certain developmental disabilities was still in its infancy.

“When I started in this field, autism was barely recognized on the radar and didn’t come into prominence until about ten years ago,” said Ryan about a condition that now comprises nearly 95% of the children in the organization’s schools. “And in our adult population, the numbers we serve are also increasing.”

On June 30, Ryan, a 20-year Naperville resident, will be saying goodbye to Little Friends but will be leaving behind a noticeably larger organization that today operates 11 programs, serving 800 children, teens and adults from 50 different school districts and housing residents. Despite the many changes that have occurred over the years, Ryan insists that one thing has always remained the same.

“When I first came to the agency, it was very young and much smaller but the staff there had a really kind spirit and developed a culture that put the people we serve first,” said Ryan. “There was an attitude that we can do something. We were willing to take a chance to see if a program would work. We benefited from our successes and learned from our failures, and that tradition has continued and permeates the agency. If there’s a legacy, that’s the one I’m most proud of.”

Appreciated by others at the agency for his extraordinary ability to make Little Friends a positive working environment where employees feel supported, Ryan suggests that being based in Naperville has also made a profound difference in the experience of his employees and the clients they serve.

“Naperville was unique,” Ryan recalls. “There was a welcoming atmosphere. Our adults with intellectual disabilities were welcomed in the stores and made to feel part of the community. In the 70s, when a child would otherwise be sitting at home through their adult years, we offered an opportunity for a child to receive services that were fun, educational and had dignity. And while we brought that to a young community, the community brought a supportive attitude to us that has been mutually beneficial.”

One aspect of that mutually beneficial relationship is the annual “Step Up for Autism 2.5 mile fun run and walk sponsored by Little Friends. This year’s event will be held on June 24 in Naperville. It’s designed to raise awareness about a disorder that now affects an estimated one in 88 children, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The event will also raise financial support for those in the Naperville community served by the Little Friends Center for Autism. For more information, visit www.littlefriendsinc.com.

On July 1, Ryan will be succeeded by Kristi Landorf, who has been with Little Friends since 2004 and is currently the agency’s chief operating officer. During retirement Ryan says he and his wife Sandy, plan to travel more, read more and continue doing what he loves and does so well: serve others.

“We have a family dog, a small Labradoodle, and I’m thinking about getting her trained to be a therapy dog,” Ryan muses about the future possibilities. “I keep being told you can’t teach a dog new tricks—and I think they may be referring to me! But as I stand back and get used to the new pace of life, I’ll also be looking for opportunities to serve.”

Photo by Robyn Sheldon