Dan Casey says Little Friends President and CEO Kristi Landorf helped lure him to the nonprofit’s board of directors years ago. Now he’s the chairman of the board, but she is the heart and soul of the organization, he says.
“Kristi is now the face of the organization having taken over from Jack Ryan, who was Little Friends for nearly 40 years,” Casey said. “The transition from Jack Ryan to Kristi has been remarkably good, and she is passionate about the cause. The things that stand out about her are that she is passionate as well as patient, which is important in dealing with people with autism.”
Landorf, 40, became the head of the Little Friends organization July 1, 2012, after serving first as its vice president of human resources, followed by a promotion as chief operating office.
A native of Naperville, Landorf proudly says she came through the local school system, including graduating from Naperville Central High School before moving on to Loyola University where her senior year proved to be pivotal.
“All of the people in my family are attorneys, and I always expected I would be a lawyer as well,” Landorf said. “My senior year, I took a class from a woman who worked during the day and taught a social service class at night. And as I sat in her class, it blew my mind about what she did each day and how it made a difference in people’s lives. I went home and told everyone I wanted to go into social work — which didn’t go over too well — but I decided that was what I wanted to do.”
Landorf continued on to get a master’s degree in public health and went to work for eight years with the Ray Graham Association in Downers Grove before it moved to Lisle. She began as an entry-level social worker and wound up working eventually with adults in group homes, realizing later that this would be her niche. She applied for a job at Little Friends, and said the first time, she didn’t get hired.
“Jack Ryan did all the hiring at that time, and the first time I applied, things didn’t even get past his desk,” Landorf said. “But in 2004, I became the vice president of human resources, and when Jack made the decision in 2006 that he would retire someday, the board felt there should be someone in place to run the day to day operations or at least have someone who could step in while they looked for someone else.”
Today, Little Friends has 400 employees and works off an operating budget totaling $16 million. Most of those funds come from the Illinois Department of Human Services as well as local school districts, Landorf said. Not surprisingly, fundraising remains one of the major parts of her job.
“The three most important aspects of what I do are awareness, advocacy and fundraising,” Landorf said. “The name of our organization does an abysmal job of letting people know what we do. Everybody has heard of Little Friends, but they don’t understand the organization’s purpose.”
Landorf said the organization serves more than 50 school districts in the area and operates the same number of group homes throughout the area, including 25 in Naperville. Those living in the group homes receive food, health care, transportation services and more at a cost of about $65,000 to $70,000 a person each year, which Landorf said saves local taxpayers money.
“Our cost is actually about half what the taxpayers would pay per person for those who would have to be institutionalized, and we do a much better job,” she said. “But our needs are growing — we currently have 20,000 people on waiting lists, and we’re going to need more residential options.”
Landorf and her husband live in Naperville with their two sons, ages 6 and 2. Living and working here, Landorf said, has been wonderful mostly because of those who live here.
“I don’t think you’ll find a more welcoming community, and as a CEO of an organization, I’ve seen it from both sides — both as a resident and taxpayer as well as someone who works within the community,” she said. “You’ll never find a better-run town — the city services are extraordinary, and even though I should be the last person to say this, people may not think they get a lot for their tax dollars but they do.”