44th Annual Faces of Philanthropy Awards | 2020 Honorees

On Friday, December 4th,  AFP Chicago proudly honored eight amazing individuals who represent the very best of our community: they are transformative leaders, diverse thinkers, eager trailblazers, and prominent philanthropists — each a shining beacon of possibility, change, and hope for Chicago. These individuals leave an undeniable footprint on the work we do in and around Chicago. They represent the best and brightest of Chicagoland’s philanthropists and fundraisers and exemplify the common bonds that connect us in our work. They are our mentors and yes, even heroes.

Congratulations to all our 2020 honorees! 

AFP Chicago Honoree Spotlights 

Distinguished Philanthropist Award

Visionary philanthropist, thought leader, passionate advocate, trusted mentor, committed volunteer, these are just a few of the words that describe Helen Zell. For decades, Helen, the Executive Director of the Zell Family Foundation, has been an avid supporter of the arts and education, with an emphasis on music, literature, and visual arts.

Helen’s passion and commitment to Chicago are beyond measure. Among numerous other initiatives, Helen led the Zell Family Foundation’s underwriting of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s music director position in perpetuity, now known as the Zell Music Director.

Helen’s lifelong passion for great literature and commitment to her alma mater is reflected in her advocacy of the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. The Zell Family Foundation provides significant ongoing support for the university’s Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree program in Creative Writing, now known as the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, which is a two-year graduate program in creative writing with a concentration in either fiction or poetry. The program also provides each student with the opportunity for a “Zellowship,” a post-graduate year of financial support that enables writers to dedicate their time solely to writing. As part of the program, the foundation endowed the Zell Visiting Writers Series. It also endowed the department’s first visiting professorship in fiction, later named the Nicholas Delbanco Visiting Professorship, and the Helen Zell Director’s Fund for the MFA program in Creative Writing. The program is recognized internationally for its excellence and regularly produces award-winning authors.

Helen is the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association. She is also a member of the Board of Trustees of Steppenwolf Theatre and serves on the executive committee. Helen is a Trustee, and former Chair, of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. She also serves on the boards of directors of: the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a public-private partnership dedicated to the healthy development of at-risk children; the Chicago Public Education Fund, a nonprofit organization working to improve public education in the city; and Teach for America, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting educational equity and excellence for children in low-income communities.

For these reasons and so many more, we are proud to recognize Helen Zell as the recipient of the 2020 Distinguished Philanthropist Award.

Executive Leader Award

Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance - Samuel Johnson.

This quote fully captures the legacy that Adela Cepeda is building and the impact that she has had on so many. When we think of great women who have done it all; women like Ursula Burns and Sheryl Sandberg, we cheer them on, but we rarely really take a deep dive into the amount of time it takes to perfect their craft and to give 110% each and every day on top of supporting families, friends and their communities. There is no doubt that Ms. Cepeda has gracefully accomplished it all. Her narrative is clearly one of PERSEVERANCE.

Ms. Cepeda’s career has been about breaking barriers. A finance specialist since 1980, she has advised municipalities and corporations on the structuring and execution of capital markets transactions exceeding $150 billion. In 2016, Adela sold A.C. Advisory, Inc. to PFM, the top-ranked municipal advisor in the United States, and became managing director of PFM until 2019. As a corporate finance executive at Smith Barney, Harris Upham, for over 10 years, Ms. Cepeda developed a strong expertise in handling public and private debt and equity transactions. She then left Wall Street to build her own firm, A.C. Advisory, which she led to a national leadership position in municipal financial advisory services.

Ms. Cepeda is a director of BMO Financial Corp., the U.S. holding company for BMO Harris, and serves as chair of BMO’s Capital Committee. She also serves on the boards of the UBS Funds, the Pathway Mutual Funds, and chairs the Mercer Mutual Funds. Ms. Cepeda previously chaired the audit committee of the board of Wyndham International, Inc., a 20,000 employee, publicly traded company that owned and operated hotels and resorts in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

Ms. Cepeda has extensive community involvement and serves on the Cook County Council of Economic Advisors and the City of Chicago Community Development Commission. She also serves on the boards of the Chicago Foundation for Women, Arrupe College, Rush, and is president of Teatro Vista. Until 2011, she served as an appointed executive committee member of The Chicago Community Trust, one of the nation’s leading community foundations. From 2011 to 2013, she served on the board of the Chicago Housing Authority, chairing its audit, finance, and pension committees.

Ms. Cepeda is an honors graduate of Harvard College with a major in Economics and has an MBA from the University of Chicago School of Business. She has three daughters, Alexis, Alicia, and Laura Maule, and is the widow of Albert Maule.

EVETTE CARDONA, Polk Bros. Foundation
Professional Grantor Award

Community activist. Trailblazer. Teacher. Consummate professional. These are just a few of the terms used to describe Evette Cardona, winner of the 2020 AFP Faces of Philanthropy Professional Grantor Award.

For more than twenty years, Evette has found a perfect home at Polk Bros. Foundation, a foundation which focuses its work at the intersection of Chicago's most pressing issues to address the complex roots and devastating effects of poverty, challenge inequity, and ensure all Chicagoans have the opportunity to reach their full potential. Evette started her career at Polk Bros. Foundation as a program intern from the University of Chicago, School of Social Service Administration. Serving as its Vice President of Programs since 2012, Evette has helped manage the Foundation’s annual $27 million grantmaking portfolio, which supports 400 plus human and health service, education, and arts organizations as they tackle some of Chicago’s greatest challenges.

Through her work as Vice President of Programs, Evette has opened the doors for new grantees to have greater access to funding and is leveraging the Foundation’s resources to support issues inclusive of immigrant rights, housing for LGBTQ youth, and lack of opportunity for people of color and women.

In addition to her service at Polk Bros. Foundation, Evette has provided leadership and governance to other organizations whose mission is to support and grow the philanthropic sector. She has served as the Board Chair of Forefront (formerly Donors Forum), while also serving as chair of the organization’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusiveness Committee. Additionally, she has served on the Board of the national Funders for LGBTQ Issues and steering committees for Nuestro Futuro, Chicago Latinos in Philanthropy, and the Chicago Foundation for Women LBTQ Giving Council. She is also proud to teach a course on philanthropy, public policy, and social change at her alma mater, U of C School of Social Service Administration, helping future social workers, policymakers, and nonprofit leaders understand the power, privilege, and responsibility philanthropy has to effect change.

In 2002, Evette was inducted into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame and, over the years, has served on the Boards of the Center on Halsted and the Lesbian Community Cancer Project.

Throughout her accomplished and wide-ranging career, Evette has spent 22 years as a professional grantor dedicated to building and strengthening Chicago's families and communities, especially those marginalized or disenfranchised. For these reasons and so many more, we are proud to recognize her as the recipient of the 2020 Professional Grantor Award.

Benjamin Franklin Award

AFP Chicago will proudly honor Sherre Jennings Cullen, CFRE, with the 2020 Benjamin Franklin Award. This award is presented to a fundraising professional who has attained significant achievements in a long career and is looked to by the profession as a role model.

Sherre is the Chief Development Officer at Urban Gateways, Chicago’s premier access point for youth arts experiences city-wide. She has served in this capacity for 11 years and has raised funds for a multitude of organizations. At Urban Gateways, she recently secured her second $1.0MM gift for general operations. Prior to joining Urban Gateways, Sherre led the development efforts at Writers’ Theatre (2005-2009) and Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (2003-2005) where under her leadership contributed income increased by $1.1MM in the first 12 months. Previously, Sherre was the Vice President of Development and Communications at the Music Institute of Chicago for seven years, where she oversaw the campaign to purchase and renovate the new education and performance facility, Nichols Concert Hall, in downtown Evanston, her new hometown.

Sherre’s relationships have made her an effective fundraiser for numerous organizations. Eric Delli Bovi, President and CEO of Urban Gateways, recently shared his sentiments of Sherre Cullen: “Sherre embodies all of the attributes necessary for an effective fundraising professional. She builds authentic and lasting relationships, sets a high bar for excellence and integrity, brings an incredibly high level of energy and love to her work, and truly cares for the organization’s mission and purpose.”

Relationships are at the heart of Sherre’s long-standing volunteerism and mentorship activities. Her dedication to volunteerism and mentoring over the years has indeed been profound. Outside of Urban Gateways, Sherre has served as a co-convener for Women in Development Professions Chicago for many years and as President of Women In Development/North prior to joining the “Loop Group.” She also dedicated 20 years to AFP Chicago as a Board member, Committee member, Mentor, and Peer Mentoring Committee Chair. She considers her tenure with AFP Chicago as one of her greatest accomplishments. Through these selfless efforts, Sherre has a long history of inspiring the next generation of fundraising professionals.

There is no better role model than one who gives as much as she receives. Sherre exemplifies everything the Benjamin Franklin Award seeks to honor: a fundraising professional whose decades-long career demonstrates excellence, success, and integrity; a mentor who has guided numerous young fundraising professionals early in their careers; and a volunteer who gives generously of her time and talent to support and elevate our profession.

AFP Chicago is honored to present Sherre Jennings Cullen, CFRE, with this year’s Benjamin Franklin Award.

RICARDO ESTRADA, Metropolitan Family Services
Outstanding Community Leader Award 

Ricardo “Ric” Estrada is a modern-day David combatting the Goliaths’ of Chicago.  He leads Metropolitan Family Services (MFS), one of Chicago’s oldest and largest human services organizations, with the same values of respect, generosity, integrity, and hard work he learned from his entrepreneurial auto body shop father while growing up in Chicago. 

For almost a decade, he has been at the helm of MFS, leading the agency to more than tripled revenue and families served.   At the heart of his civic leadership is compassion for the people he works every day to advocate for and serve in the community in a thoughtful, supportive manner. 

His career is dedicated to positively uplifting disadvantaged families in Chicago.  He is a prominent, transformational leader whose expertise is grounded in the grassroots fundamentals of the collective working together to achieve a goal.  This is evident by his leadership of the CP4P initiative, a cross agency partnership of eight community-based organizations, including MFS and the City of Chicago, collaborating to reduce gun violence in nine of Chicago’s highest-risk communities.

Currently, he serves on the board of the Woods Fund of Chicago and the Grand Victoria Foundation, where he champions racial equity in Chicago. In addition to serving on the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, he also serves on the Board of Directors of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, A Better Chicago, and Erie Elementary School.

For three decades, he has been promoting the welfare of the families and children in the most oppressed areas of Chicago where violence, racial injustice, and economic disparity impact daily life.  Prior to joining Metropolitan Family Services, Ric served as First Deputy Commissioner of the City of Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS), and prior to that, he was the Executive Director of Erie Neighborhood House in Chicago.

Ric’s work to level the playing field in Chicago has not gone unnoticed. He has been honored as an American Marshall Memorial Fellow and a Leadership Greater Chicago Distinguished Fellow. He has received the City Club of Chicago John A. McDermott Award for Distinguished Social Leadership, the University of Illinois at Chicago City Partner Award, and the University of Chicago’s Inaugural SSA Social Impact Alumni Award. Additionally, Ric was named a Roberto Clemente honoree by the Chicago Cubs and has received the NFL Hispanic Heritage Leadership Award from the Chicago Bears. Other accolades include being named “Person of the Year” by the Corporate Responsibility Group of Chicago, receiving a Kellogg CEO Perspectives Fellowship, and earlier in his career, being selected as one of Crain’s Chicago Business’ “40 under 40.”

His educational journey propelled his passion for human services and began with his B.S. in Psychology from Loyola University of Chicago. He then continued to hone his skills at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, where he received an M.A. in Social Service Policy and Administration.  His formal education culminated with an MBA from the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he became the distinguished yet humble leader we celebrate as this year’s AFP Outstanding Community leader.   

Of course, none of this would have been possible without the support of his wife, Beatriz, and two daughters, Sophia and Daniella. 

Emerging Philanthropist Award

Combining two of her passions—the arts and caring for her community—Chanel Coney is making a lasting impact on the artistic and social landscapes of Chicago. Having developed an understanding of the world of theater and the arts during her studies at Princeton University and apprenticeship at Steppenwolf, Chanel realized the impact such a world has on the workings of everyday life, particularly the expression and well-being of the disenfranchised.

Chanel is a dedicated humanitarian, using her unique and intimate knowledge of the world of the arts combined with her position as a savvy young professional in Chicago to make very real and very crucial changes within the community. Her understanding of philanthropy drives her presence in the business world, particularly her work at CFI Partners. As Director of Marketing, Chanel manages the communications that power the firm’s work with the Academy Group, a partner of CFI Partners focused on guiding underrepresented students toward a successful future in business.

Chanel is the recipient of many accolades, including Crain’s 20 in their 20’s, and the Emerging Philanthropist Award from The League of Chicago Theatres in 2016. Her philanthropic efforts are embedded at her core as a result of a lifetime of exposure charitable giving through the efforts of her family, Lester, Dawn, and Javon Coney. In 2017, her family founded the Coney Family Fund for the Chicago Artist Coalition, which awards a $5,000 unrestricted gift to emerging Black or African-American artists.

In addition to her philanthropy, Chanel was engaged as a director on the boards of 3Arts and Congo Square Theatre, where she was appointed their youngest Board Chair. Chanel currently serves on the boards of Victory Gardens Theater, Chicago Artists Coalition, Congo Square Theatre, Forward Momentum, and the Leadership Advisory Committee (LAC) at the Art Institute of Chicago, among others.

For these reasons and many more, AFP Chicago is truly honored to recognize Chanel Coney with the 2020 Emerging Philanthropist Award.

Outstanding Volunteer Award 

Claudia Winkler not only embodies the spirit of volunteerism but has redefined what it means to be an outstanding volunteer. Claudia’s dedicated service to important organizations of Chicago has proven her not only to be a volunteer, but also an ambassador for the culture and preservation of some of Chicago’s most important historical assets.

Claudia rarely turns down an opportunity to give back, often taking the opportunity to go above and beyond. This is evident through her dedicated service to the Lyric Opera of Chicago. For more than 20 years, she has served as a passionate donor and volunteer for the Lyric Opera of Chicago. By enthusiastically welcoming guests in the OperaShop merchandise store, co-chairing an event that secured $500,000 for the organization, and providing backstage tours to inquiring minds, Claudia’s knowledge and passion are inspiring.

Claudia is also a dedicated member of the Fourth Presbyterian Church, where she has taken on many leadership volunteer roles, including serving as a Deacon preserving the sanctity of the congregation, a Trustee overseeing finances of the congregation, a Docent sharing the beauty of the sanctuary, a reader at regular morning services, and an Usher. As an Usher, Claudia stands out as a leader in hospitality, welcoming the housed and un-housed with matching grace.

As a Docent for the Chicago Architecture Center, Claudia exuberates authoritativeness, strong communication skills, and an authentic sense of engagement. Going above and beyond, per her typical fashion, Claudia has developed tours for the organization, trained and mentored beginning docents, and created educational programs for the docents’ continuing education. Claudia has played a key role in providing a rich legacy for the organization.

Lastly, Claudia serves as an interpreter for one of Chicago’s most notorious residents- Sue the Dinosaur at the Field Museum. As a docent to the museum, Claudia has enthralled, informed, and educated thousands of wide-eyed children and curious adults from across the globe. She consistently fuels a journey of exploration and discovery to every visitor she encounters.

Claudia’s passion, dedication, and service are impactful not only to these organizations, but to residents and visitors of Chicago alike. We are pleased to recognize her as this year’s Outstanding Volunteer.

Outstanding Youth in Philanthropy Award 

Felix Castillo is not only a talented entrepreneur but truly has a heart devoted to philanthropy and giving back. Felix is the Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Felix's Famous Cookies, along with his mother, Laura. Felix was six years old when he began to bake and sell his Grandma Toni’s homemade Mexican cookies, called Polvorones, shortly after she passed away. After finding much success selling these cookies at local events, Felix and Laura launched Felix’s Famous Cookies when he was nine years old. Today, Felix is 15 years old and ships his cookies across the country.

Since his very first cookie sale and still today, it has been Felix’s vow to give back proceeds of every cookie sold to non-profit organizations and the less fortunate, all in memory of his beloved Grandma Toni. Felix credits her for instilling in her children and grandchildren the importance to give and help those most in need.

To date, Felix’s Famous Cookies has helped over 75 non-profit organizations from across the country, has awarded four college scholarships and has helped fund various projects such as Hero Packages for children fighting pediatric cancers. Felix’s Famous Cookies has supported multiple Chicago-area organizations with their Charity of the Month program, including Mercy Home for Boys & Girls, Casa Central, National Museum of Mexican Art, and Synapse House, among many others. For Synapse House, Felix not only donated a check but also encouraged guests at his birthday party to donate items off of the charity’s wish list.

Felix continues to volunteer his time and share his experience with other aspiring young entrepreneurs, including at Mujeres Latinas in Accion and Mundelein High School’s Business Incubator program.  Most recently, The Disney Channel featured Felix as a youth influencer, making an impact in the community.

Felix is currently a 10th Grade Honor Student at Central Catholic High School, where he is also a member of the JV football team.  Felix would like to attend the University of Texas in Austin, where he hopes to study International Business.

Felix Castillo “has shown that business and philanthropy can go hand in hand and that one can achieve great things no matter his or her age” (Nominator Sally Weigel). AFP Chicago is honored to present Felix Castillo with this year’s Outstanding Youth in Philanthropy Award.