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updated: 4/1/2013 8:51 AM

Naperville CEO a good friend to those with autism

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  • Naperville native Kristi Landorf became CEO and president of Little Friends last summer after eight years with the organization.

      Naperville native Kristi Landorf became CEO and president of Little Friends last summer after eight years with the organization.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Kristi Landorf, the new CEO and president of Little Friends in Naperville, is surrounded by photos of clients who have autism or other developmental disabilities. Seeing their gains has been a source of great satisfaction, she said.

      Kristi Landorf, the new CEO and president of Little Friends in Naperville, is surrounded by photos of clients who have autism or other developmental disabilities. Seeing their gains has been a source of great satisfaction, she said.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer


Troy Biegun, a 40-year-old with autism spectrum disorder, is preparing to move into his first apartment with the help of Naperville-based Little Friends Inc., a private nonprofit group that serves children and adults with autism and developmental disabilities.

"He's over the moon about this," said his mother, Dee Biegun, of Woodridge.

Both excited and apprehensive for her son, Biegun has called Kristi Landorf, Little Friends' new executive director and president, several times to discuss her concerns and receive assurances everything will be OK.

"She's been very approachable and very supportive," Biegun said. "There are not too many organizations where you can pick up the phone and call the CEO."

Landorf says it's just that kind of client-focused approach that first drew her to Little Friends.

"I've always wanted to work for Little Friends," she said. "It's not a very top heavy organization, which allows us to put 90 cents of every dollar into programs."

Since its founding in 1965, Little Friends has helped make Naperville so supportive that City Manager Doug Krieger says he's heard some families with autistic children move to town primarily because of its resources.

Landorf is carrying on Little Friends' tradition of care, he said.

"It's more than a just a job to her. She cares about the clients, she cares about the Little Friends employees and instructors," he said. "She's a very passionate person about it."

Landorf said the expectations of residents in Naperville and the surrounding area has helped Little Friends keep its focus.

The community again will be asked to show its support on World Autism Day April 2 by participating in "Light It Up Blue." Businesses and individuals are asked to show or wear blue, and blue lights will shine on Naperville's Millennium Carillon through April 14.

To further promote understanding of autism, Little Friends will offer "The Changing Face of Autism," a free program at 7 p.m. April 4 in North Central College's Meiley-Swallow Hall.

"Little Friends is a community-based program. We want the community to say out loud, 'We're all part of this,'" Landorf said.

Law to social work

Growing up in a family of lawyers, Landorf thought it would be her career path, too, until she took a class in college taught by a social worker who talked about her real-life experiences.

"It struck me that she was actually out there doing something impacting people," she said.

Community integration for people with developmental disabilities was just starting when she entered the social work field and she wanted to be part of it, Landorf said. She joined Ray Graham Association, applied twice to Little Friends and was turned down before being hired in 2004 as the vice president of human resources.

A little more than two years later, the organization prepared for the approaching retirement of longtime CEO Jack Ryan by creating a chief operating officer position that Landorf served in for five years.

When Ryan left, Little Friends officials decided they didn't need to search for a new director, said board member Dan Casey, owner of Casey's Foods in Naperville. Landorf was named CEO last July.

"It seemed apparent to us that Kristi would be able to fill that role and she's done a great job transitioning into it," he said.

The married mother of two young sons, Landorf heads an organization that annually serves more than 800 children and adults with autism and developmental disabilities in DuPage, Kane, Kendall, Will and western Cook counties. Programs include three alternative schools, vocational training and opportunities, community-based residential housing, family support and consultative services, and the Lifeskills Training Center for Children with Autism, a group home in Glen Ellyn.

On any given day, Little Friends operates with about 400 employees, Landorf said. Most of the senior staff has been there at least 20 years and employees are so dedicated they've visited clients on their own time, she said. Volunteers run the Serendipity Resale Shop in Naperville and help with several fundraising events the organization holds every year.

Landorf said 85 percent of Little Friends' $15 million budget comes from state funding since clients served in its residential and vocational programs must qualify for Medicaid waivers. The rest of the funding comes from school districts, donations and grants.

With the state's financial difficulties, funding can be frustrating, but Little Friends has opted not to compromise the quality of its services, Landorf said. The organization receives about $45,000 per client a year in state reimbursement, but the actual cost of service is $60,000 to $65,000, she said.

"Our residential program alone loses about $200,000 a year," she said. "We know that. We plan for that."

Little Friends provides housing to 100 adults in communities that include Naperville, Downers Grove, Westmont, Burr Ridge and Lisle. The 42 properties it owns or uses contain no more than four people per unit. Oversight ranges from staff on-site around the clock to staff checking in with clients more capable of living independently.

Landorf said Little Friends' goals include doing more to support adults who age out of the school system at 22 by providing residential, vocational and life-skills programs.

"It's literally a cliff; your 22nd birthday and you're done," she said.

Dee Biegun said she and her husband, Ron, an outgoing Little Friends board member, sought out Little Friends after Troy left high school. For the past 19 years, Troy has worked at Spectrum Vocational Services, Little Friends' sheltered workshop in Downers Grove. The workshop provides a social outlet as well as full-time employment for her son, Biegun said.

"He's excited to go to work every day," she said. "Without Little Friends, I don't know where he would be. They've been great for him."

Landorf said seeing people such as Troy progress and accomplish goals gives her great satisfaction.

"I've seen amazing gains," she said.

But even Little Friends has its limits, Landorf acknowledges. She recalled parents of one child being upset when the organization concluded it had done all it could to help him, and offered to help the family find other placement.

"You can't be everything to everyone," she said.

Seeking acceptance

Upward of 80 percent of Little Friends' clients have autism spectrum disorder as part of their diagnosis, Landorf said. She said she believes autism is increasing in society, pointing to a recent National Institutes of Health report saying that one in 50 schoolchildren has autism.

"I think it's a combination of better diagnosis, younger diagnosis, combined with obviously there is something going on," Landorf said.

Autism includes a wide spectrum, ranging from nonverbal to high-functioning individuals. Generally, people with autism spectrum disorders are more sensitive to bright lights and loud noises, and thrive on routine. A better understanding of their behaviors can go a long way, Landorf said.

In Naperville, police and firefighters know not to approach homes where a person with autism lives with sirens blaring and lights flashing, she said. The DuPage Children's Museum has one evening a month when families with children with autism are encouraged to come.

At Little Friends, children with autism are taken into community businesses to shop. Landorf hopes to see the services of Little Friends Center for Autism expanded so more children with autism can stay in their own schools.

"We require a little adaptation, but we fit right in," she said.

Landorf recalled that at end-of-the-year ceremonies at Little Friends' Krejci Academy in Naperville, one student who was supposed to read panicked and was silent for three full minutes.

"Nobody even tried to hurry him up," she said. "Everyone sat there and waited. That was like the coolest thing I've ever seen."

That's the kind of acceptance and understanding Little Friends seeks for all its clients.

"I like that we're always trying to do right by our clients," Landorf said. "If we weren't, I wouldn't be there."

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