DuPage Easter Seals president stepping down after 30 years

When Mary Alice D'Arcy arrives each morning at her job as president and chief executive officer of Easter Seals DuPage and Fox Valley Region, more often than not she runs into a client family already in the parking lot.

And more often than not she finds herself walking side-by-side with them as they enter the center in Villa Park.

“We are a tiny slice of our families' lives and yet we are their second family. That's what they call us,” D'Arcy said. “They can take a deep breath and feel part of a broader support system, of people who understand. They don't have to explain their lives or their kids' lives. They can just relax, relax and learn.”

The Villa Park Easter Seals center has more than quadrupled in size, staff and clients since D'Arcy started there 30 years ago, but the supportive and caring family atmosphere remains for families in need.

Her work to preserve and build on that atmosphere will be one of D'Arcy's legacies when the Lombard woman officially steps down from her post next month.

“It's all about relationships,” she said.

Such relationships have helped Easter Seals continue to increase its services and offer the latest in therapies in a time of tight state funding and economic woes. The agency provides services for infants, children and adults with disabilities to help them achieve as much independence as possible.

D'Arcy attributes the group's success to the solid foundation on which the organization was built and a clear understanding and communication of its mission.

“Our mission is real simple. It is to enable the maximum independence of everyone we serve and support the families who love and care for them,” she said.

D'Arcy will entrust that mission to Theresa Forthofer, executive director of The Community House in Hinsdale, who will start her new job Jan. 20. D'Arcy, 68, will remain on staff through February as CEO emeritus to ensure a smooth transition.

Forthofer said during the 15 years she served at The Community House, she became well aware of D'Arcy's reputation.

“She's very personally connected to everything,” Forthofer said. “I'm just incredibly impressed with what she has done and where Easter Seals is going.”

Social work start

D'Arcy was working as executive director of affordable housing development in Wheaton when she saw an ad that Easter Seals placed to hire its first social worker. A social worker by profession, D'Arcy wanted to get back to her roots and use her administrative skills.

“I was thrilled,” she said.

When she began working with Easter Seals in 1981, the organization had a staff of about a dozen and served 150 families a week. It was housed in “the little red schoolhouse,” a 7,000-square-foot facility on Park Boulevard in Villa Park.

Within a few years, Easter Seals board members knew they needed more space. Easter Seals purchased the former Madison School at 830 S. Addison Ave., Villa Park, and moved in 1984. By 1999, Easter Seals needed to expand again.

The existing 31,000-square-foot facility was built around the old Madison School, which then was torn down. A partnership with United Cerebral Palsy provided funding for half the building.

“It's been a marvelous, marvelous place,” D'Arcy said.

The Villa Park center houses the physical, occupational, speech-language, nutrition and assistive technology therapies and auditory services that Easter Seals provides, along with administrative offices, social services, community outreach programs, specialty clinics and The Lily Garden child care center that is D'Arcy's pride and joy.

The inclusive child care serves children with disabilities, their siblings, children of Easter Seals employees and the surrounding community. D'Arcy said adults who attended the child care center years ago still have former classmates with disabilities among their best friends.

“They grew up together and they were just kids. They didn't have any biases about what I can do and what somebody else can't do,” she said.

With two satellite centers in Naperville and Elgin, Easter Seals DuPage and Fox Valley Region now serves 1,000 families a week, and has a staff of 130, a budget of nearly $8 million and a reputation for providing top-notch service.

“We've been told by our accreditation people that we have the best in the United States of America in what we do,” D'Arcy said. “We have people here who are internationally renowned.”

Bringing out the best

Before coming to Easter Seals, D'Arcy's previous experience with people with disabilities consisted of two years she spent as a social worker in a Wheaton school.

“Some of my caseload were kids with disabilities. I was always drawn to hang out with those kids,” she said.

D'Arcy didn't understand the attraction herself, until her cousins recalled an early childhood experience that might have set her on the path to Easter Seals. When she was 5, her 9-year-old brother, Francis, died of polio.

“I'm confident that impact left a mark forever. Unbeknown to me, I'm sure it influenced my draw to work with Easter Seals,” she said.

After a couple years of devoting herself to social work duties at Easter Seals, D'Arcy added program director to her title before being appointed CEO 15 years ago. As program director, she decided she could not manage therapists, but she could assist them to do their best.

“I do understand what I don't know,” D'Arcy said. “I always hire to my deficit. Heaven knows, the list is long of what I don't know.”

A continuing education department started at Easter Seals 28 years ago gives staff therapists and therapists around the country the opportunity to enhance their skills and keep up with the latest in therapy.

“Technology has really advanced their (clients') opportunity for independence,” D'Arcy said. “The pace of it all is just so rapid it's hard to keep up.”

One program that has developed over the past decade is the use of TheraSuits, originally developed for astronauts in Russia to help maintain their muscle tone in weightlessness. Therapists in Poland adapted the suits to help children with disabilities, and two families from this area went to Poland for therapy.

They returned and asked if Easter Seals could implement the program here. With the help of a $100,000 donation from the relative of an Easter Seals family, the organization did.

Children take the therapy four hours a day, five days a week for three weeks, D'Arcy said.

“The kids in this three-week span advance one year in therapy goals,” she said.

Sammy Williams of Elmhurst, a pediatric physical therapist at Easter Seals and the mother of a 27-year-old son who received services from Easter Sears into his adult years, said D'Arcy always has been willing to do whatever it takes to make possibilities come true.

“She is the epitome of a leader,” Williams said. “She sees people's strengths and expects them to do their best and they do.”

Jerry Morrow of Carol Stream, an Easter Seals board member and a parent of a 13-year-old daughter who receives Easter Seals services, said anyone who makes a donation or contributes to Easter Seals, receives a thank-you letter from D'Arcy or one of her vice presidents within days.

“Her appreciation for anything that helps Easter Seals is so genuine,” he said. “She knows how to get people to go the extra mile with a very kind leadership style.”

State Rep. Sandy Pihos, a Glen Ellyn Republican, is one of the state legislators whom D'Arcy names as a friend of Easter Seals. Pihos says D'Arcy has been an effective advocate for families who have young children or adult children with disabilities.

“She has been, for years, an incredible resource to me in Springfield in educating me on the new resources that would provide help to these families,” Pihos said. “She always comes to the table with substantive and creative ways to raise funding.”

Head and heart

D'Arcy said she has continued with the principles laid down by Easter Seal founders not to rely on only one source of funding. Easter Seals fundraises, works with clients' insurance companies and with a variety of state programs.

“We never relied on state-funded only grants,” she said, explaining that any state grants Easter Seals accepts must have a federal match.

Easter Seals also works with United Way and nurtures relations with civic groups such as Kiwanis and Rotary that provide donations and volunteers. D'Arcy admits she initially felt uncomfortable asking for donations until she saw people's giving as an extension of themselves.

“I offer them Easter Seals as their match for their time, their talent or their treasure. Sometimes it's all three,” she said. “The head and heart combination is the only way.”

Stacey Sanicki of Downers Grove established the Carol and Jack Sanicki Crystal Heart Award in honor of her parents, who served as Easter Seal board members and volunteers. D'Arcy, the award's most recent recipient, supported her when her parents died at relatively young ages and left her the guardian of brother, Jason, now 33, who has celebral palsy. Sanicki's 14-year-old son also has received services from Easter Seals.

“Even in her role as CEO, she has stayed connected with Jason and me,” Sanicki said. “She has such a gift to be with people.”

Looking ahead

D'Arcy said she'll continue with Easter Seals as a volunteer in government affairs. She may find other volunteer work as well, she said, but right now she's looking forward to more unstructured schedule.

A Chicago Cubs fan, she and her husband, Bill, will attend the team's training camp in Arizona for a week this spring.

“My plan is not to have a plan right away. That seems so joyous to me,” she said.

When a niece and nephew who live in the area call and ask for a hand with their kids, D'Arcy wants to be there.

Her own children are the thousands who have come through Easter Seals over 30 years. Some still come back for occasional therapy and D'Arcy maintains a keen interest in their success and their struggles. Continuing to assist them to live full lives as adults is an area where Easter Seals still needs to grow, she said.

“It's been a real gratifying experience to see how they've moved through their lives,” D'Arcy said.

For more details on Easter Seals services in DuPage and the Fox Valley area, contact or (630) 620-4433.

  Mary Alice D’Arcy, the retiring CEO and president of Easter Seals DuPage and Fox Valley Region, reflects on the 30 years she has spent with Easter Seals. Bev Horne/
  Mary Alice D’Arcy talks with one of the children in The Lily Garden child care center. Bev Horne/