By Shannon James, Esq., and Heather Voorn, CELA, CAP
As Wendy Cappelletto starts her year as NAELA’s 33rd President in the midst of a pandemic, this year promises to be anything but “normal.”
Keeping in contact under a “stay-at-home” order requires a little creativity, but that did not stop us from settling in for a virtual cocktail hour to interview NAELA’s 33rd President: Wendy Cappelletto, Esq., CAP. Wendy appeared on the screen with a big smile, and to no one’s surprise, wearing one of her signature Chicago Blackhawks hockey jerseys (or as she will correct you — sweaters). We were all happy to spend some time catching up and sharing pandemic coping strategies.
Since her loves of travel, dining out, and attending concerts are temporarily on hold, Wendy is getting by with gardening, watching old Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup reruns, and baking. She even proudly showed off her bar cart stocked with fancy liquors she uses in her baking.
An Aspiring Start
Born and raised right outside of Chicago in Niles, Illinois, Wendy accompanied her mother to political rallies, door-to-door canvassing, and the polls from an early age. This early exposure fostered an investment in her community and instilled the idea that it is essential to do good in the world for the underserved.
Wendy will tell you that she knew she wanted to be an attorney by the time she was 6 years old. When the Watergate Trials hit the airwaves in 1973, young Wendy was equally engrossed and incensed. She did not play house or teacher; Wendy played lawyer. Wendy had a pretend office set up in her room with a little Formica desk and phone, and when her brother really wanted to tease her, he would simply pick up her child-sized phone on the pretend desk and call Nixon.
Wendy attended the University of Illinois in Champaign, Illinois, for her undergraduate degree, majoring in political science, and then stayed to complete her law degree. After law school, Wendy spent 8 years at Prairie State Legal Services, handling a variety of civil matters including family law, subsidized housing issues, elder abuse, and Medicaid and Social Security appeals. In addition, she worked on grants assisting persons with HIV and assisting persons with disabilities to obtain vocational training and supportive services from the State of Illinois. This first foray into public service gave her experience in benefits and advocacy, two things that have remained integral to her career.
Wendy is the Director of Policy and Benefits for the Cook County Office of the Public Guardian. She found a home at the Office of the Public Guardian after leaving Prairie State Legal Services in 1998. As a staff attorney, she almost immediately started overseeing the Benefits Department. In 2004, she became the supervising attorney of the Intake Department and remained director of benefits. Her new title of director of policy and benefits took effect in 2019 and is a perfect complement to her interests. Wendy loves policy work and being able to effect systemic change for the big issues that impact her clients. It was the Office of the Public Guardian that brought Wendy to NAELA when she attended her first conference in fall 1998, and she has been hooked ever since.
A Champion of NAELA
After that first conference in Washington, D.C., Wendy describes having felt an instant connection with the mission and the members of NAELA. She felt so welcomed and energized by the NAELA membership that Wendy sought out more opportunities to become involved with the organization, which included a heavy focus on the Illinois Chapter of NAELA. She has twice served as President of the Illinois NAELA Chapter, so there is no question that National NAELA is in good hands with such an experienced professional at its helm.
Wendy has also served on National NAELA’s Membership Committee, Conference Planning Committee, and was a recent co-chair of the 2018 NAELA Summit in her hometown of Chicago. Putting her guardianship expertise to work, she also joined the Guardianship Steering Committee, later becoming chair. Wendy’s commitment to NAELA has never wavered, and she has been serving on National NAELA’s Board of Directors for nine years.
Since 2011, Wendy has served on Illinois NAELA’s legislative committee and tirelessly reviewed and analyzed legislation and administrative rules. It is in this capacity that she acquired another hobby — killing bills — in particular bills that affected our most vulnerable — the seniors and people with disabilities she has dedicated her career to serving.
Wendy is setting a line of firsts — she is the first government employee not engaged in private practice to become president of NAELA, and she is the first Illinois NAELA member to rise to that position as well.
Wendy is a regular presenter at NAELA conferences and other continuing legal education programs. She routinely serves as a moderator for Illinois NAELA’s bi-annual UnProgram. When presenting at non-NAELA continuing legal education programs, she always boasts about NAELA’s successes and the benefits of membership. She is a true champion of NAELA and its mission.
If you have not already met Wendy, the best way would be to sign up for her “dine-around” at the next conference. As a true foodie, Wendy is sure to pick the best and most hip restaurant for her dine-around.
Wendy credits NAELA for enhancing her professional career through education, networking opportunities, and support. Forever paying that forward, she is exceedingly generous with her own time, knowledge, and connections.
Looking Forward with Hope and Determination
There is no doubt that we are living through unprecedented times. To continue to advocate for the most vulnerable and often voiceless, Wendy’s determination and level-headedness are crucial. She is proud to report that NAELA staff and leadership have smoothly transitioned to working remotely and have not missed a beat.
Recognizing that NAELA’s membership is diverse in geography, priority, and practice, Wendy will continue to develop the ways NAELA membership can be beneficial to its varied members. One of her goals as NAELA President is to expand the state chapters. Having been involved in the Illinois Chapter for so many years, Wendy feels privileged to have watched it grow both in members and sophistication. Of course, Wendy will use her presidency to continue to emphasize education and the policy work she loves.
Keeping It All in Balance
Somehow, Wendy manages to balance her work, NAELA, outside advocacy, and personal life. She and her husband, Brian, love to travel, see live music, attend sporting events, are trivia masters, and are the first people to ask about the hot new restaurant in Chicago.
Indeed, some of that has changed over the past few months during the COVID-19 crisis, but she is certainly getting her fill of Blackhawks and Cubs reruns, and because she’s an excellent chef and baker, this self-described foodie is keeping busy in the kitchen.
Part of her ability to balance her work life and personal life is because Wendy’s NAELA relationships are not just business; they have become some of her dearest friends and supporters. After all, it was the mission and the people that drew Wendy to NAELA 22 years ago, and we are so lucky to have her lead us through this unprecedented year.
About the Authors
Shannon James is a trust officer at ATG Trust Company and leads their guardianship and special needs trust team. She served for years as an attorney at the Cook County Office of the Public Guardian.
Heather Voorn, CELA, CAP, is immediate past president of the Illinois NAELA Chapter. She is a partner at Delaney Delaney & Voorn, Ltd., in Chicago, and is a member of the NAELA Foundation Board of Trustees.