Comfortable in Her Own Skin- Paola Serrano, Class of 2019

When Paola Serrano, St. Francis de Sales (SFDS) Class of 2019, walked across the auditorium stage last month to accept her diploma, she was still awaiting one of her most important learning experiences. In this case, though, the “classroom” for her final SFDS lesson was an entire country, in the form of a nine-day tour of Greece with the SFDS Travelers Club. “It was an important trip for me because I got to experience another culture firsthand,” said Paola. “Seeing things—especially world problems—through the eyes of people from a different country, really makes you expand your own way of thinking.”

While her summer has included adventure, it won’t include much of a break. Earlier this year, Paola was awarded one of the City of Hammond, Indiana’s College Bound scholarships, a renewable scholarship based on academic achievement that requires recipients to complete 40 hours of community service for the city each summer. Paola says she’s looking forward to it: “Doing these community service projects is a way for me to give back to the community I’ve lived in my entire life,” she explained. “It also gives me a sense of pride, knowing that I’ve worked hard to earn this scholarship and that I plan to make the most of it.”

Next month, Paola will begin her undergraduate studies at Indiana University Bloomington with a specific long-term goal in mind: starting her own dermatology practice. Paola said that she became interested in dermatology after seeing the effect skin problems had on other young people she knew, and after becoming aware of the prohibitive expense of most prescription treatments. “I want to help everyone afford to be comfortable in their own skin,” she explained. “I also want to de-stigmatize acne, because it’s something everyone experiences to some degree.”

Helping others is something that seems to come naturally to Paola. When she was a freshman at SFDS and a senior she knew wanted to play softball but there weren’t enough players to form a team, Paola stepped up to the plate. “I didn’t know anything about softball, so it was a little rough,” she laughed, “but it was also a lot more fun than I was expecting it to be.” The experience taught Paola much more than just how to field and hit a ball: “I’m a nervous person, especially when I have to do anything in front of a crowd, but by the end of the year, that experience had definitely improved my confidence overall.”

Although she may have not enjoyed being in the spotlight, Paola was never one to sit on the sidelines during her years at SFDS. A member of the school’s podcasting club, she and other students researched, wrote about, directed, produced, edited, and reported on current events. She participated in chess club, yearbook, newspaper club, art club, the National Honor Society, and the student ambassador program, and was a member and three-year president of student council. This past spring, Paola’s many contributions were recognized in the form of the De Sales Award. Determined by peer nomination and faculty vote, the award is given to a senior who best exemplifies the ideals of the school, demonstrating leadership, service, academic integrity. and moral character. 

Paola credits many of her SFDS teachers with fostering those qualities in her, including Associate Dean Stephen Sanchez, who taught her government and history classes. “Mr. Sanchez definitely brings real-life situations into the classroom, especially ones that relate to the students,” explained Paola. “He talks about current events—issues like immigration and police brutality—and helps students voice their frustration and know they’re being heard. He also makes it known that students can come to him if there’s anything they need to talk about.”

When asked what words of wisdom she would share with incoming SFDS freshmen, Paola drew upon her own experience: “The biggest thing I would say is, don’t worry about what other people are doing or what they think or about fitting in,” advised the new graduate. “I didn’t have a whole lot of fun in the beginning because I was too worried about those things. I started letting go of that after a couple of years and I had a lot more fun, and connected a lot better with people.” 

With such an important life lesson already under her belt, and a true appreciation for her local and global communities, Paola will undoubtedly connect well with her future classmates and patients—and show them by example that beauty is much more than skin deep.

John Alfirevich: Driving Community

For most 12-year-olds, a typical summer includes bike riding, video game marathons, and hanging out with friends. When your dad is general manager of a car dealership and the local mechanics are on strike, however, those pastimes have to be enjoyed between assisting with oil changes, patching flat tires, and replacing headlights. That was John Alfirevich’s (’81) experience after his father, Joe, called him to help out at Bob Motl Chevrolet in the summer of 1975.

Around that same time, John’s older sister, Mary Jo, was attending St. Francis de Sales (SFDS) High School, and it was assumed that he would follow suit. John was not initially convinced: “I was playing football at the time, and Mount Carmel had reached out,” he recalled. Providentially, a football game was what eventually sold him on becoming a Pioneer. “In eighth grade, a friend of mine called me up to go to a St. Francis football game,” explained John. “We go, and we’re sitting in the middle of the student section. We were playing St. Laurence, and it was an army of guys coming out—they looked big, almost professional. When our guys came out, we were smaller in stature and in number, maybe half as many kids on the squad. We still nearly beat them and it made me think, ‘I love to be the underdog; it’s more rewarding.’ That was a deciding point.”

After graduating from SFDS, John went on to attend Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, on a football scholarship, where a knee injury cut short his football career. “It was kind of devastating,” he admitted. “I was en route to be a decent player.” John used the injury to develop a daily discipline: “It got me up in the morning, every morning, working out. Maybe if I didn’t injure myself, am I still doing all of that?” The experience taught him a lifelong lesson: “Let failure be your friend,” advises John. “Failure is so important to who you are and who you’re going to be; it becomes your drive and your passion.”

After graduating from Benedictine in 1985 with a degree in business, John began working full-time at the car dealership, which had been renamed Apple Chevrolet and relocated to Tinley Park. He has worked in every department, and today shares ownership with his father. John’s leadership over the past two decades has fueled not only the dealership’s significant growth, but also its tremendous community impact: in 2018, Apple Chevrolet donated to nearly 100 organizations, including American Legion Auxiliary, Colon Cancer Coalition, and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, as well as many area schools, churches, and sports teams. In 2015, John was chairman of First Look for Charity, a fundraising event and celebration held the evening before the Chicago Auto Show. Under his leadership, the event raised $3 million for Chicago-area charities.

John’s dealership is also known for hosting charitable events such as Toys for Tots and an annual Barbeque for the Troops, which, in addition to providing food and fun for Illinois veterans and their families, raises $10,000 each year for the USO of Illinois.

A values-based educational background is evident in John’s professional ethos: “We treat our customers with unpretentious integrity, and that will always be a prerequisite for customer interactions in our dealership,” he explained. “Our philosophy and processes include 100 percent honesty in all our dealings, with open transparency in every transaction.”

John’s commitment to ethical excellence and community service has not gone unnoticed. He has been awarded the Better Business Bureau’s Torch Award for Ethics, the NADA PAC Outstanding Achievement Award, and the Illinois Radio Broadcasters Recognition Award. Most recently, John was named Ally Bank’s 2019 TIME Dealer of the Year, and honored at an awards ceremony attended by 350 fellow industry and community leaders, friends, and family.

Of all of John’s accomplishments, being a strong community partner and creating and maintaining a strong team are two he counts among the most important. He received a lesson about the latter from his own son, John, now a marine biology major at Florida Southern University. “One day we were in the house and my son was cleaning out his 15-gallon fish tank,” recalled John. “I’m asking him questions about it and he tells me, ‘I’m building an environment here where if one thing doesn’t do its job, others die off. Everything in this tank has a job and has to do it to its fullest in order to ensure the health of the ecosystem.’” The conversation left an impression on the senior Alfirevich, and shortly thereafter, he purchased a 350-gallon aquarium for the dealership. “I didn’t buy it for the aesthetic,” explained John. “I pass by it every day, and it reminds me that everyone has a job, and my job is to make sure everyone does theirs. Here, as in the ocean, if someone is lacking something—education, skills, tools—it affects the others.”

Now with his two youngest children in high school, John says he is stepping back a bit from his work to ensure that he can participate in their busy lives. His advice to current SFDS students echoes St. Francis de Sales’ own iconic words. “I think young people should understand who they are and aspire to be who they can be,” John said. “The criticism’s going to come; you just have to believe in yourself and have bigger dreams.”


Mary Kay Ramirez: Happy Days

To meet the bright-eyed director of community relations with the constant smile and quick laugh, one might mistake Mary Kay Ramirez for an enthusiastic first-year teacher rather than a 35-year veteran administrator. What might also surprise people is that a lifelong career at St. Francis de Sales (SFDS) was not part of her original plan: “When I first interviewed for a teacher position here, I really liked the school. It reminded me of my high school: Catholic and diverse,” explained Ramirez. “I thought I would teach here for a few years to gain some experience and then move onto other things.”

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Ramirez’s main subject was art, but like many Catholic school teachers, she was also called upon to teach other courses, including world geography, earth science, and typing. After Dean of Students Kathleen Madonich passed away, Ramirez was asked to help take over dean duties. Juggling her new responsibilities while continuing to teach art proved to be a professional and personal test for the young administrator: “That was a very challenging year. I learned a lot about myself.”

After Ramirez had spent several years in the dean's office and was finishing her masters in secondary education in curriculum and instruction, the role of assistant principal became available. She transitioned into the role and began working side by side with then principal Richard Hawkins. When Hawkins’ position later became available, Ramirez seemed like a natural choice to succeed him, but she did not rush to throw her hat into the ring: “I had just been recently married and still had a daughter in high school,” she explained. “I knew the time commitment might take me away from my daughter's activities and put a strain on my new marriage.”

The SFDS president at the time, Rick Hussmann, convinced her otherwise, and she accepted the position, serving as principal for six years. “Being principal was one of the most challenging yet most rewarding times of my life,” recalled Ramirez. “My favorite part was being able to shake every graduate’s hand as they walked across the stage. I remembered what each student looked like back on the first day of freshman year and was proud of what they had accomplished in four years. I also knew that they had been given the tools and skills to be successful in the next phase of their life, and was confident they would be!”

Now, as director of community relations, Ramirez finds herself wearing many different hats, as she is responsible for recruitment, admissions, enrollment, marketing, website and social media, and alumni relations, and also sits on the school’s development team. Despite the differences between all of the roles she has held at the school, Ramirez has found some constants: “As I was moving into each new position, I learned that in order to be successful, you need to surround yourself with good people. Create a team that has a hard work ethic, is compassionate about all things SFDS, and is fun to be around.”

Ramirez has done just that, and in the process has made lifelong friendships with fellow faculty and staff members. She has also developed friendships with former students—and was even asked to be in a former student’s wedding. She plays Bunco with other SFDS alumni who are former students of hers, and every month she has lunch with the “SFDS Retired Ladies”: Ms. Lepore, Ms. Mikrut, Mrs. Keating, Mrs. Hroma, Ms. Gesmond, Ms. Bucur, Mrs. Roguljic, Ms. Archer, Mrs. Djukic, and Mrs. Mabs.


One of Ramirez’s most memorable experiences at SFDS was coaching boys’ golf for five seasons. “I was the only female coach in the league, which often caused problems at certain golf courses when we would hold our coaches’ meeting in the men's locker room,” she laughed. “I played golf on my high school team and had great memories of my experience. As a coach, I truly enjoyed being on each of the courses we played as well as mentoring the young men under my supervision.”

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Ramirez points to her own Catholic upbringing as a major influence on her professional ethos: “Being a teacher, dean, assistant principal, and principal, I sometimes had to make some hard decisions regarding students, families, and teachers. Having a solid faith foundation helped me treat those situations with compassion, even when tough decisions had to be made.”

As an eight-year breast cancer survivor who lost a sister to breast cancer, Ramirez says that spending time with family and remembering to smile and laugh each day are principles she lives by. Many of her colleagues and students are familiar with her favorite sayings, “Happy Day,” and “Life is too short.” When she’s not busy with her many SFDS duties, Ramirez loves spending time with her 14 grandchildren, walking on the beach, reading, attending Sox and Bears games, going to concerts, and traveling. Wherever her travels take her—including Germany for the birth of a grandson last year and Cabo San Lucas earlier this month—SFDS is blessed and proud to be the place she calls home.

Lou Sandoval: Pioneer at the Helm

During his years at St. Francis de Sales, Lou Sandoval (’83) looked forward to a career as a doctor. Accepted into DePaul University’s pre-med program, everything was going according to plan—until a week before graduation from undergrad, when Lou told his dad, “I don’t think I want to be a doctor after all.”

Lou traces the beginnings of what was to become his career path back to his experiences as a Boy Scout: “On my path to earning my Eagle Scout award, I pursued every science merit badge and was doing STEM long before it was a buzzword,” said Lou. “I learned a lot about science and technology, and it fascinated me.”

Lou with wife Sonia and daughters Sarah and Sofia, at the Grand Canyon

Lou with wife Sonia and daughters Sarah and Sofia, at the Grand Canyon

Sandoval began his career in sales, marketing, and management at Abbott Laboratories, moving onto other prominent healthcare companies in roles of increasing responsibility over the course of 17 years. “I’d like to say my career took place in thirds,” said Lou. “In the first third, I learned proper form and structure, how to do things. The Fortune 500 companies I worked for focused on training and development, and that gave me a jump start to learn things the right way.”

As it turns out, the subsequent phase of Lou’s career can also be traced back to his experiences as a Boy Scout. At the age of 10, Lou had gotten his first taste of sailing at a Scout camp in Michigan, an opportunity that might not otherwise have presented itself to the son of a steelworker in South Chicago. He became active in the sport again as an adult after being invited to sail on sailboats in Waukegan. Later, while living in Seattle, Lou developed a side business managing customer’s boats, an enterprise he replicated in Miami before his biotech/biomedical career brought him back to the Midwest.

After his return to Chicago, Lou, his brother, and two fellow Pioneers purchased a small yellow 1978 vintage boat that Lou says they “spent more on than it was worth.” A few years later, they purchased a 33’ sailboat they named “Karma,” and Lou befriended the owners of the company that sold it to them. When the owners retired,  Sandoval partnered with fellow De Sales alum Jack Buoscio (’82) and purchased their company, launching Karma Yacht Sales, a premier dealership of sail and power yachts.

In addition to vastly expanding his knowledge and love of boating, Lou says that this second third of his career allowed him to apply the principles he had learned in his previous work within his own enterprise. “At Karma Yacht Sales, we created a culture that engaged our employees in making the company perform well. I applied practices learned in corporate America to make customer service a focal point of our business.” Over 16 years, Lou and his team experienced significant success doing just that; his company earned national accolades for customer service and sales.

Being in business for himself taught Sandoval a lot about the need to keep one’s options open. His business partner departed the business in 2016 after some unfortunate circumstances; however, Lou’s tenacity had him press on. Always a consummate entrepreneur, Lou identified an opportunity to sell his dream business in 2017 and sought to identify his next venture. As luck might have it, a conversation over breakfast two months later led him to what he describes as the back third of his career, serving as National Director of Business Development for a new division of the Brunswick Corporation. “It happened on a whim. It was the right opportunity at the right time,” recalled Lou, who leads the commercial application of technology across Brunswick’s boating division, developing ways for people to stay in touch with their boat remotely. “I love to create things, and this opportunity gives me a chance once again to build something from the ground level up, to create and apply some of the same things I learned in chapters one and two of my career while still staying within the marine industry.”

Looking back at his St. Francis de Sales days, Lou is quick to give some credit for his success to his supportive guidance counselor: “When I was a sophomore at St. Francis, we took a career aptitude test,” explained Lou. “I came back completely demoralized when it gave me high aptitude for doing things with my hands—not that there’s anything wrong with that—but I remember going in and seeing John Cappello, my guidance counselor, and he was inspirational. He said, “Let’s put it in your file and not look at it again. I’ve seen your leadership in sports and the classroom, and I challenge you to dream big.” Lou says that Cappello continued to guide him through his college application process. “He embodied for me what a guidance counselor should be.”

Another big influence throughout Lou’s life has been his parents, but not because they placed an emphasis on success. “My parents gave me the latitude to fail,” said Lou. “They said, ‘I’m not going to tell you what you should do, but allow you to fail and learn from your failures.’ I’ve learned more in the times that I’ve failed than in the times I’ve succeeded; it takes you into different areas and teaches you to persevere. It shows you what you are made of.”

A longtime member of the Chicago Yacht Club Board of Directors, Lou was recently elected to the position of commodore. One of his goals in this new role is to expose more young people to the boating experience. “We want to give them life skills. As a kid from the South East Side, relating to things outside of my immediate experience was difficult at times. When as a young businessman I was able to fit into a new circle because I knew my way around a boat, that made a difference and fostered inclusion. If I can do that for a group of kids through our programs, I would gauge that a success.”

In forging new paths, Lou truly identifies as a Pioneer: “I was the first Hispanic commodore of the Chicago Yacht Club, and the first Hispanic commissioner of the Chicago Area Council of Boy Scouts of America. I don’t like to be the only one, but I don’t mind being the pioneer. A pioneer might go there first, but creates the path for everyone else to follow.”



SFDS Girls Soccer Player Signs Letter of Intent for CCSJ

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On Saturday, March 16, 2019 Ileana Gallegos, current East Side resident and current senior at St. Francis de Sales High School signed her official letter of intent to play Women’s Soccer for Calumet College of St. Jospeh Crimson Waves.

We are absolutely excited to announce this news. Ileana is one of many players from the SFDS girls soccer team that have had the opportunity to continue their playing career at the collegiate level. 

Alongside her family and coach she accepted this amazing opportunity and took the next step toward achieving her dreams. 

“I am extremely proud of the player that Ileana has evolved into, she is the type of player that makes coaching easier. I will miss her dearly. I wish her nothing but the best and the utmost success at the next level.” 
⁃ Coach M. Flores

Congratulations Ileana Gallegos!

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