Alumni Spotlights

Our stories and experiences are what connects us as a community. With over 75 years of stories on the South-East side of Chicago, we connect our current students with Alumni to talk about their time at St. Francis and how it has shaped them to become the people they are today.

 
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The Story Teller

Screenwriter. Director. Actor. Author. These are some of the titles listed on St. Francis de Sales (SFDS) alumnus Kenny Young’s resume, but Kenny prefers to describe his work more simply: “I’m a storyteller,” said Kenny. “I’m passionate about telling stories. We’re all storytellers, whether they’re the stories we’re sharing, or the stories we’re living.”

Kenny, a partner in the Los Angeles-based production company, James Young Entertainment, says that his Alma mater provided him with a strong foundation for storytelling. “I learned a lot about writing and symbolism from [former English teachers] Mr. Modesto and Ms. Thometz; that’s what started to awaken my desire to write.” Kenny also credits Mr. Modesto with introducing him to the discipline of daily journal writing. “I keep a journal to this day, and I think that has really helped me see my life as a collection of stories.” Perhaps drawing on his experience giving acceptance speeches, Kenny is quick to list several additional former teachers/administrators who guided him on his path, including Mrs. Lepore, Ms. Cooney, Mr. Foster, Coach “Kacz,” BJ Nelson, and Principal Schultz.

After graduating from SFDS in 1989, Kenny earned his bachelor of arts in theater from Columbia College. He immediately pursued film and theater projects, but for the first several years had to find other work to pay the bills. “I had like 900 jobs,” laughed Kenny, “but none of them were careers; they were all to subsidize my film and theater work.” While at Columbia, Kenny struck up a friendship and collaboration with fellow South Sider Carl Seaton, with whom Kenny produced several short films.

One of those short films would play a pivotal role in bolstering Kenny’s early career. While in the editing stages of “One Week,” a feature film he had co-written and starred in that chronicles seven days in the life of a man waiting for results of an HIV test, Kenny and his crew ran out of money. After seeing Kenny’s short film, “Tissues,” Hollywood director Robert Townsend hired Kenny to write a script for him, which allowed Kenny to finish production. “One Week” premiered at the Acapulco Black Film Festival in 2000, winning best U.S. film, and screened at four other film festivals, including the Chicago International Film Festival.

Since that first film, Kenny has written and directed three additional films, including “Bachelors,” which won best director and best narrative film awards at the 2015 American Black Film Festival. In 2016 and 2017, Kenny parlayed his love of Christmas into directing three television Christmas movies. Kenny's documentary directorial debut, “They Don’t Give a Damn,” takes a close look at the demolition of the Chicago housing projects and its effects on the community. Kenny called the film “the most time-consuming and most difficult project I’ve ever done,” but also one of the most rewarding. “It got me excited to do more documentaries because you can tell really different stories that way, with people sharing their life stories with you.

One of Kenny’s own life stories led to his first animated film, “Chance,” which tells the story of dog fighting from the dogs’ perspective. “I was visiting a friend a few years ago in Atlanta, and a friend of hers had this pitbull I really connected with,” explained Kenny. “As we were leaving, the dog’s owner told me that the dog had his first fight the following day, to the death. It really shook me and stayed with me,” said Kenny. “I wanted to tell the story through the dogs’ perspective.”

Having recently sold a script for a horror film, Kenny is humble about his broad artistic range. “I try not to limit myself to genres; I think storytelling is universal. I’m always trying to challenge myself and step outside what I normally do.”

Kenny was inducted into SFDS’ Hall of Fame in 2009, and in 2013 published “Whuppins,” a collection of short stories based on his life experiences in Chicago and Los Angeles. When asked what advice he would give to current students about pursuing their passion, Kenny didn’t hesitate: “The first thing is to just go out and do it. A lot of people call themselves ‘aspiring actors.’ Don’t aspire, just do it.”

Kenny encourages others to find their passion, and to do for a living what they would do for free. “Don’t chase the money, chase your happiness, because if you do what you love, you’ll love it so much you won’t care about the money, but you’ll do it so well, the money will follow.”

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Jorge Perez, SFDS Class of 1990, Building Community

Growing up in the Bush neighborhood, St. Francis de Sales High School (SFDS) alumnus Jorge Perez got his education in Community 101 at an early age. His lessons took place in the bakery and grocery store his family owned and lived above at 83rd and Houston. “It was a town within a town,” recalled Jorge. “Everyone knew each other.” Working for his parents taught him skills that would form the foundation for his personal and professional future. “I learned early on to talk to everyone on a first-name basis, to maintain relationships.”

After graduating from SFDS, Jorge continued to manage his parents’ store during the day while studying economics at night at Roosevelt University. His most powerful real-world economics lesson came during that time period. “The steel mills closed down,” explained Jorge. “To see that all fall apart in your neighborhood, you ask yourself, how can I get involved, how can I fix those things?”

One look at his resume makes it clear that “getting involved” has been Jorge’s lifelong mission. After obtaining an MBA from Loyola University, Jorge served as President of the Calumet Area Industrial Commission (CAIC) from 2001 – 2008. There, he recruited many new local and regional business leaders, and worked with members and elected officials to promote the new face of industry in the Greater Calumet Region.

Jorge went on to serve as Deputy Commissioner for Chicago’s Department of Aviation, then as Vice President of Strategic Planning and Policy for the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), before taking the helm as Executive Director of The Hispanic American Construction Industry Association (HACIA) in 2011. Founded in 1979, HACIA has been a leader among organizations of its kind, providing training, education, and leadership development for its more than 300 members; lobbying for legislative change within the industry; and giving scholarship assistance to students in related fields of study.

With its 40th anniversary on the horizon, HACIA continues to expand its own horizons. Under Jorge’s leadership, HACIA has teamed up with similar organizations in Texas, Florida, and New York to collaborate on projects. “We have a much bigger opportunity to work together regionally or nationally, which is exciting,” said Jorge.

Jorge’s economic development efforts have not gone unnoticed by city leaders. In 2016, Mayor Emanuel appointed Jorge to be Chairman of the City of Chicago’s Community Development Commission. As someone whose economics experience had previously focused on managing TIF dollars and land acquisition sales, Jorge says that overseeing the designation of new TIF districts has given him a new perspective. “Seeing the pipeline of projects coming through the city, you get a really good sense of what’s happening. If it weren’t for TIF dollars, many of those projects wouldn’t be possible.”

When he’s not focusing on the city’s economic growth, Jorge says that much of his time is spent trying to keep up with the growth of his 10- and 13-year-old sons, including their voracious appetites. His latest venture may help. Years ago, Jorge bought the building he grew up in from his dad, and lived there with his wife and sons until three years ago, “when we moved a whopping mile south,” laughed Jorge. The storefront has been vacant since 1994, but still has the baking equipment and zoning permits, leading to a project Jorge affectionately dubbed, “I want to hang out with my dad, and he’s bored out of his mind.”

“There are a ton of kids at the new charter high school down the street,” explained Jorge. “Dad and I have been slowly working on the building for a couple years, and we plan to sell pizza and a couple items on the weekend from a walk-up window.” He is quick to explain that this latest project is purely a labor of love: “It’s not intended to make money. Just to hang out and have fun with it, that’s the goal.”

For someone who has spent decades building connections, it comes as no surprise that the relationships that Jorge made at SFDS are what stand out most to him now. “There was a close knit group when I was in school, and we still get along really well. It’s great to see everyone still encouraging each other, and to see [my former classmates] doing well.” His advice to current students is to focus on making their own connections: “Make a lot of friends, get to know people, and keep all of those relationships warm.”


Chris Cole, SFDS Class of 1971, Leader and alumna honored during International Women’s Day in March 2017

In honor of International Women’s Day in March, we took the opportunity to have one of our seniors interview St. Francis de Sales alumnae and business leader, Chris Cole.

Chris Cole graduated from St. Francis de Sales in 1971. She went on to graduate from Northern Illinois University with a BA in Accounting. After four years at Deloitte as an accountant, she left and started her long career at McDonalds Corporation.

Anissa Vanna, a senior at St. Francis de Sales, interviewed Chris on what it means to be a woman in the business world and what her advice would be for the students of today. Chris had lots of good advice and stories. Both women talked about their St. Francis de Sales education, their dreams and experiences.

Click the link here and read up on what Chris and Anissa talked about. 


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