In 1987 the family of fourth-grader Justin Wynn created an organization to honor his memory and turn the tragedy of his early and accidental death into a legacy of youth leadership.
Since the first annual Awards Brunch, the Justin Wynn Fund, through its Justin Wynn Leadership Academy, has now mentored 636 youths in fourth through 12th grades. The JWLA continues to develop programs and leadership opportunities to fulfill its stated mission to “celebrate and nurture youth leaders by helping them develop a deep sense of self and responsibility for improving their communities.”
The memorial idea that parents Michael and Marcia Wynn had 34 years ago has prevailed and flourished by encouraging and supporting a growing cadre of energetic youth leaders who regularly give back to their communities.
Carrie Ost, the JWLA Program Director and a former English teacher, calls the two fourth-graders selected yearly from each of District 65’s dozen schools “truly incredible kids. They are selected by their teachers and principals because they exemplify the values of good citizenship, leadership, and of helping others. From the time they are selected to when they graduate high school, they are officially ‘Wynners,” said Ms. Ost.
Monthly leadership meetings are held for both the elementary school Wynners and the high school Wynners, convened in their two separate peer groups. Every month there is also a mixed-age group meeting led by the high schoolers. Since community service is the keystone to the JWLA, there is almost always a service project to plan or to do: sometimes a food or diaper drive, a park or beach clean-up, or a card-making session benefiting elderly residents.
Through the City of Evanston’s Adopt-a-Park Program, Wynners have officially adopted Chandler Park, Ms. Ost said. “Monthly we do a park clean-up,” she said, “and we’re getting close to fulfilling the 150 hours of park volunteer work that will entitle us to have a Justin Wynn Leadership Academy plaque mounted in Chandler Park.”
Sue Thompson, who has been Director of the Justin Wynn Leadership Academy for a decade, received a preview of the dynamic not-for-profit when her daughter was named a Willard School awardee in 2003.
“The core of the program has always been service, sportsmanship, and citizenship, but the organization has evolved and changed over the years too,” she said. The high school Wynners used to have the option to travel abroad to do service work; there were service trips to Russia, Sweden, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Venezuela in the years before Ms. Thompson took the helm.
In 2002, the protocol for selecting two instead of one Wynners from each District 65 school started; and in 2005 the very popular annual 3-on-3 Basketball Tournament that attracted hundreds of third- through eighth-graders was launched.
What continues to be the same is the rich variety of service and leadership opportunities, community events, and new friendships.
“An August three-day camp retreat has been a tradition for a long time,” said Ms. Thompson, “and one highlight is the older kids planning and leading the activities. There are community-building activities, service projects, and collaborative planning as the Wynners nominate organizations that they would like to support through service work or financial donations in the upcoming year.”
The overnight camp experience was canceled during the pandemic in 2020, but a day-long outdoor event by Evanston’s Lighthouse Beach was planned as a substitute event. During the 2019-2020 year of programming, despite COVID-19, the JWLA donated an impressive 486 hours in service work.
“Helping in soup kitchens and at the Evanston School Children’s Clothing Association, participating in food drives, doing activities with Family Focus kids, making cards for hospitalized kids, and cleaning up parks and beaches – these are some of the ways Wynners give back to the community,” said Ms. Thompson.
Wynner Alex Johnson, who will head to college in the fall, described leadership achievement more or less as a consequence of the years of being part of a tight-knit community where helping was natural, valued, and fun too.
Alex is an Illinois State Scholar and a 2021 recipient of the Michael Wynn Award (named in honor of Justin Wynn’s father, a former dean at ETHS), an award honoring students who exemplify compassion, inspiration, and dedication. Alex said being involved in the JWLA for eight years has shaped who he is now.
“I’ve made good friends, friends who are a constant in my life. We aren’t all the same, are different in lots of ways, but have a special bond. I’ve loved the monthly meetings where some of the high school kids lead conversations about important things like equity and social justice. It’s a powerful experience both for the younger kids and for the high schoolers. And I’ve realized that the older kids ultimately become real role models for the younger ones.”
Josephine Teoudoussia remembers telling her mother after she was selected as a 2017 JWLA recipient, “I’m not even sure why my school picked me.” Now she is glad they did. Josephine likes the choices she’s offered to get involved and to volunteer. She said, “I get an email at the beginning of every month, and I can sign up for whatever I want. I’ve really liked doing service projects. And some of my favorites have been working at a church soup kitchen and dancing with the seniors at Levy Center.
“I also liked doing activities with little kids at Foster Center and making sandwiches at Beth Emet for homeless people,” Josephine said. “I think leadership shows in the way you act, even the small things. Sometimes little things that make someone’s mood better.”
Since 2002 the Justin Wynn Fund has hosted a winter gala to raise funds in support of the programs that still perpetuate the ideals and dreams of Justin Wynn’s parents.
Justin’s two siblings, Laura Wynn-King and Riian Wynn, continue to be strong stakeholders in the organization and serve on the Justin Wynn Fund Board of Directors.
“I think this organization will stay strong,” said Ms. Wynn-King. “It was founded with a lot of community support and continues to have that. It also has an amazing director in Sue Thompson, and what we stand for – compassion and helping other people – are qualities we all want our kids to have and to pass on.”