Naperville prevention advocate leads with 'quiet, kind' power
Karen Jarczyk found herself being honored at an awards ceremony earlier this fall and wasn't exactly in her element.
The longtime director of prevention for 360 Youth Services in Naperville thinks of herself as a behind-the-scenes person, "lifting others forward" and "helping them to lead."
Members of her prevention team see her that way, too, such as Kate Keir, who has known Jarczyk since she was 3 and considers her a mentor.
"Her power is quiet and kind," Keir said. "You feel it from the moment you're in the same room with her."
Even the person honoring Jarczyk with the eighth annual Fair Lady Award, Kandiss Hernandez of Fair Lady Productions, knew the spotlight isn't where Jarczyk truly shines.
But Hernandez decided Jarczyk deserved the positive attention anyway for her efforts leading Operation Snowball retreats for the past 35 years. The three-day retreats have welcomed more than 13,000 teens to engage in workshops designed to surround them with caring connections, support healthy lifestyle choices and help them become comfortable with themselves.
Operation Snowball a few years ago helped Hernandez's son, Josh, emerge from a phase of personal struggle during high school to become a more confident, social and stronger person.
"If anyone says anything about Snowball, I'm like, 'Take your kids there now,'" Hernandez said. "It changed my son."
Jarczyk, 60, is well-acquainted with stories about the power of the Snowball retreats, which she helped bring to Naperville early in her prevention career as one way to help teens build capacity to stay away from drugs.
So she stepped out of the background to receive the Fair Lady Award, but she didn't step out of herself.
Attendees at the banquet at an Italian restaurant were filling up on chicken Marsala and lobster ravioli when Jarczyk asked the chef what would happen to the leftovers. Finding out the restaurant wouldn't take the extras back, she approached Hernandez with a request: Could the food be boxed up for 360 Youth Services? Participants at a boys club meeting the next day would love to eat it.
"Her thoughts go immediately to caring for others," Hernandez said. "It's amazing, and that's her. That's how she thinks."
Jarczyk, when she retells the story of the award dinner, doesn't mention the leftovers. She describes feeling touched by the honor and pleased to receive it in front of friends and co-workers from the organization where she has worked for 37 years.
Then she gets right back to discussing substance use prevention, the work she feels in her heart is "where my mission is."
"This is the work I'm supposed to be doing," she said.
Jarczyk, a longtime Palatine resident, grew up on the South side of Chicago and got a bachelor's degree in social work from Loyola University Chicago. Her introduction to Naperville came when she applied for a job working with young people at Naperville Community Outreach, which eventually became 360 Youth Services. She was the small agency's third staff member.
Not long after she joined, she attended a forum about reducing youth substance use and heard about a retreat-like program called Operation Snowball. She visited one Snowball weekend in Zion to learn what it was all about, then began volunteering to bring it to Naperville.
Some of the power of Snowball, she says, comes from the fact its workshops are developed by teens who know what it's like to be in high school, why it can be a struggle and why that struggle leads some to turn to drugs or alcohol.
Some of the power comes from the tone set by Jarczyk and followed by Keir and other adult leaders.
"What's unique about Snowball is that it's really an environment where there's a community of caring," Jarczyk said. "Students realize more than ever they're not alone."
Jarczyk uses that same mentality as she leads her team of six prevention staffers at the agency that now has 53 employees. She also helps lead the Community Alliance for Prevention, which since 2013 has gathered top personnel from schools, city governments, nonprofits and businesses to collaborate on keeping teens away from alcohol and marijuana as well as heroin, prescription drugs and e-cigarettes or vaping.
"I like to create teams that feel like a community of caring where we can just be ourselves with one another," she said, "where we can work toward a common goal, where egos are out on the side and we're just working together for the optimum good."
The "optimum good" of Jarczyk's work has reached teens all over the spectrum of need, those who know her say.
Messages of prevention developed by Jarczyk and her team reach 24,000 students each year in Naperville Unit District 203 and Indian Prairie Unit District 204, giving the same base of knowledge to students who might be struggling with mental health conditions or leaning disabilities as to those scoring academic or athletic successes.
"Karen understands the importance of believing in what you do and the impact that you can have on others if you're doing work that you believe in," Keir said. "She believes in prevention more than anyone I've ever met."