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The news site of Evanston Township High School's student newspaper

The Evanstonian

The news site of Evanston Township High School's student newspaper

The Evanstonian

Justin Wynn Leadership Academy: ‘A legacy to protect’

Evanston Photographic Studios
Photo courtesy of Carrie Ost

On May 15, 2011, as winter’s icy grip loosened its hold and long shadows were replaced by chirping birds, buzzing bees and blooming flowers, nine-year-old Mollie Hartenstein and the then-selected Justin Wynn Leadership Award recipients, or “Wynners”, along with Evanston’s mayor, school officials and community members, attended the annual Awards Brunch. Dressed in a long gray dress with appliqué roses on the bodice and matching gray sandals—her very first pair of shoes with a heel—Hartenstein entered the Hilton Orrington Hotel with a steady confidence and a massive smile.

Inside the banquet hall, dozens of round tables stood adorned with cellophane-wrapped Hershey Kiss flower bouquets, courtesy of Justin’s beloved “Granny,” Catherine McKnight. Crystal flush-mount dome lights illuminated the space, as the sunshine anxiously peered in through the towering windows. A young Hartenstein let her French toast mingle with the syrup as she turned her attention to the scrambled eggs and bacon, exchanging glances with the other Wynners between bites.

“I didn’t have to do anything. I just got recognized for being me,” Hartenstein said. “The room was so big and there was a big staircase that we walked down and we sat at a big table in front of everybody. I remember feeling really proud of myself and it felt like the beginning of something.”

And that very day was, in fact, the start of something. As the current program director of the Justin Wynn Leadership Academy, Hartenstein is driven to give back to the community that shaped her life in so many meaningful ways.

From the very first Awards Brunch in 1988, nearly 700 students have received the Justin Wynn Leadership Award. While the Justin Wynn Leadership Academy has appropriated both continuity and change, the annual ceremony in May, attended by approximately 300 people from across the city, persists as a quintessential occasion in the Evanston community.

“Everybody leaves [the brunch] with warm, fuzzy feelings, and there’s hope in the air,” said Justin’s older sister, Laura Wynn-King.

Photo courtesy of Carrie Ost

In 1987, nine-year-old Justin Wynn, the son of long-time Evanstonians Mike and Marcia Wynn, passed away in a swimming pool accident. From his untimely death, Justin’s parents established the Justin Wynn Memorial Fund, which aims to instill in young people the virtues that Justin embodied—citizenship, leadership and sportsmanship.

“Justin was a very kind soul,” said Justin’s older sister, Kelli Wynn. “He was that kid in school, who was friends with everyone—all races, colors and religions. Justin stood up for other kids. There was a time when there was a new child at school who was having a hard time fitting in, [and] Justin took him under his wing. Justin was also a leader in the classroom. He was the kid that the teacher could always count on to be doing the right thing.” 

Today, the Justin Wynn Award is presented annually to fourth graders from each of District 65’s elementary schools, including the recent addition of Park School in 2023. Recipients are selected by their teachers and other school staff, and are invited to participate in the Justin Wynn Leadership Academy until graduating from high school. Through community service activities and projects, Evanston’s Wynners develop skills to be life-long leaders.

“If [Justin] would have lived past his nine years he would have definitely done great things,” said Justin’s younger sister, Riian Wynn. “When you think about everything that he could have been, it’s just tragic that he couldn’t live that out, but with the Justin Wynn Fund, his legacy is living on.”

In the three decades following the organization’s inception, Mike and his wife Marcia marshaled efforts to keep Justin’s spirit alive, an undertaking that coincided with the construction of a board of directors that shared their unwavering commitment to empowering Evanston’s youth.

“In 2014, [Mike] reached out to me and asked if I’d be willing to join the board, and we had this very emotional breakfast and I said, ‘Absolutely, I would love to. What an honor.’ I didn’t know much about the organization when I joined the board, [and] Mr. Wynn passed away only a handful of days after that breakfast,” said Dave Bowen, the former president of the JWLA. “It has been quite an adventure joining the board and subsequently becoming the board president for eight years. Seeing where we were then to where we are [now] has been kind of one of the greatest pleasures of my life.”

Maggie Westover, who was selected as an awardee of the Justin Wynn Leadership Award in 2010, views Justin’s father as the heart and soul of the JWLA.

“Mike Wynn is present in all my positive memories of Justin Wynn,” Westover said. “Mr. Wynn was always there and he was always getting down on your level to talk to you. Just the amount of respect he had for us, was reciprocated by all of the Wynners that interacted with him because he was so wonderful and compassionate.”

Mr. Wynn is often described as a ‘man’s man’; someone who wanted to shape others with the attributes he valued most: compassion, respect and accountability. 

“[Mike] was my football coach my freshman year of high school. He was someone that you aspired to be and he genuinely cared about everybody. He was a gentle giant and a good man and you just wanted to do good by him. If you could get his respect, that meant the world,” ETHS athletic director Chris Livatino said.

Bowen, who interacted with Mike Wynn in many different capacities throughout the course of his life, attests to his genuine and altruistic character, describing him as a pillar of Evanston’s community who touched the lives of many and fostered connections marked by reciprocity and equality.

“Mr. Wynn always had everyone’s best interests at heart,” Bowen said. “The experiences I had, not only during high school, but after high school when he would check in on me regularly, he wasn’t doing it to check a box, he was doing it because he really did care. And for a young person that can feel like a rarity at times, [especially] when you have this larger than life, former NFL player, All-American in Nebraska and legend of Evanston that’s taking an interest in making sure you’re okay as not only a teenager but a young adult and, frankly, as a 30-something-year-old when we reconnected after I got back from being abroad. It’s pretty special.”

In the face of adversity, Mr. Wynn found strength and solace within the organization, where his grieving manifested in the betterment of Evanston’s youth.

“[Mike Wynn] was a larger than life presence. This man suffered the most unspeakable tragedy, and this organization was kind of a lifeline for him, a way to still be connected to Justin,” said former executive director Sue Thompson, who served in her role from 2015-2023.

The loss of Mr. Wynn was quite a jarring time for the organization, as it coincided with the retirement of a long standing program director at the time.

“The organization literally had to build itself back up,” Bowen said. “The fundraising methodology and the programming wasn’t sustainable, and the perception of Justin Wynn in the community was somewhat clouded. People knew it, but they didn’t really understand what the organization stood for. And so we employed a strategic plan that really helped carry us through those first few years following Mike’s passing. The board and the program became so intertwined, so tight and so aligned.”

While his absence is felt by all, members of the organization assure that Mike Wynn remains at the forefront of the JWLA in the legacies, lessons and values he left behind.

“Even after [Mike] passed away, he was still a central figure of not just what leadership looks like, what it meant to like lead leaders and what it meant to cultivate leadership,” Hartenstein said. “[Mike] made everyone feel like the best version of themselves and that they could do whatever they set their mind to and that they could bring out the best in people. He didn’t just make you feel special, he made you feel like you could make everyone feel that way.”

Photo courtesy of Carrie Ost

Despite the dynamic nature of the organization’s leadership structure, there remains a steadfast commitment to preserving the essence of the Justin Wynn legacy through the presence of the Wynn family on the board of directors.

“We have rotating board members with term limits but there is always a place for Wynn family members on the board, and that demonstrates how seriously we take this as a collaboration between the family and the organization. They really are our guiding force. Riian and Laura are super supportive of the different directions that we go but we’re always coming to them and asking, ‘Is this in line with how the Justin Wynn legacy should be carried forward?’ It’s really beautiful to have them as our rock,” said executive director Carrie Ost said.

In moments of uncertainty, when the board seeks clarity on the ideals championed by Mr. and Mrs. Wynn, the focus naturally shifts to their three daughters: Kelli, Laura and Riian. The Wynn sisters’ insight guides the board’s decisions on the rare occasion that they find themselves at a crossroads.

“[The Wynn sisters] are our Northstar,” Bowen said. “For a small grassroots organization like this to have not only the staying power, but the growth that the organization has experienced over that time is a testament to leadership of the entire [Wynn family]. 

Within the JWLA, every initiative is pursued with the Wynners’ growth and development in mind.

“[Justin Wynn] is a labor of love for everyone that’s involved in it. It has always tied back to one simple phrase that Mr. Wynn told me at that breakfast. He said, ‘Dave, I just want you to remember one thing because you may end up leading this [organization] one day. Just remember it’s all about the kids. If you just keep that in mind, nothing else matters,’” Bowen said. “When you’re on nonprofit boards, there can be differing priorities or views. That’s healthy, and in Evanston, that should be expected. We can always have a healthy debate but there’s never been a debate about whether or not it was all about the kids.”

Justin Wynn is an indisputable example of the power of cross-age interaction. Recipients have the privilege of being a part of the leadership academy for eight consecutive years, where growth is tangible. This process allows for cohesion and a deep sense of belonging.

“The kids really grow alongside one another over time, and they are deliberate about fostering mentorship-type relationships. It’s such an asset to have kids of different ages coming together,” Ost said.

The organic evolution of the JWLA promotes a dynamic and spirited learning environment for old and new Wynners alike.

“There’s constantly new Wynners to learn from. With every new generation of Wynners, they bring something new to the organization. It’s been so cool to see [Justin Wynn] evolve throughout my [involvement],” said 2015 awardee Hannah Lindroth, who graduated from ETHS last spring.

Leadership, a practice that serves as the driving force behind the organization, takes many forms. 

“I didn’t really know what it meant to be a leader and all of the different capacities and ways that you can be one,” Lindroth said. “Being a leader is not just being the first one to speak or being the head of the group or being the one to make decisions. It can be stepping back, fostering a space where others feel free to take the lead and express their ideas freely.” 

The JWLA acts as a collaborative leadership and community improvement program that partners with a multitude of local organizations. Through a carefully crafted process of leadership development and participation in community service, the potential of Evanston’s youth is transformed and mobilized to inspire the community-at-large. 

Wynners attend monthly meetings where they plan service opportunities, engage in leadership training and team building exercises, and collaborate with community leaders. The youth in the JWLA annually serve over 25 community organizations, and participate in a variety of service projects per month, including work with local food pantries, soup kitchens and assisted living facilities.

“It’s such a beautiful way to conceptualize leadership as community service, which I might not have thought of as the fundamental thing before I familiarized myself with this organization, but I think that’s exactly what leadership is and should be about,” Ost said.

Photo courtesy of Carrie Ost

Justin Wynn has instilled in the students the ability to be present through active engagement and genuine connection.

“[Volunteering] was a big stress reliever for me, because for a little while you’re not concerned with your own problems and everything going on in your life. You’re concerned about this larger problem, and you’re working towards a collective action. I would be volunteering and I would just be concerned about the people right in front of me, or the task right in front of me and nothing else,” Lindroth said.

One of the many organizations that Wynners have the ability to engage with is the JUF Uptown Cafe, Chicago’s first kosher anti-hunger program, which helps to alleviate some of the burden that an individual may be facing in a restaurant-style meal program staffed by volunteer waiters. Lindroth dedicated much of her involvement with the JWLA to providing hunger relief, where she encountered experiences that were not merely transactional, but deeply relational.

“The JUF Uptown Cafe helps bridge the gap between charity and market food and re-humanizes the experience of receiving a hot meal. After serving the patrons, we got to sit down and enjoy the meal with them. I met some incredible people that had so much to share and so much gratitude and hope for their lives. It taught me a lot about how to be grateful even when it feels like you’re stuck or in a bad place,” Lindroth said.

The annual August leadership camp at the YMCA Camp Duncan in Ingleside, Ill. is at the heart of the Justin Wynn Leadership Academy. During their time at camp, Wynner’s embody the mission of the Justin Wynn Fund, and collaborate on developing a strategic plan for the upcoming program year, participate in team-building activities and nominate local organizations to invest their time in throughout the year. Camp is one of the defining moments for the Justin Wynn Leadership Academy, creating a forum for Wynners to build life-long friendships.

“I think [all the activities] are special, but the one that’s the most special for me personally is Camp Duncan,” Bowen said. “By the time the bus arrives at camp, [the Wynners] are already best friends. They’re all supporting one another. [Camp is] where I feel Mike’s presence the most because he loved camp. He loved being able to take young people from all over Evanston and have them participate in fun activities and leadership exercises. We have a Justin Wynn Idol, and all the Wynners participate. They know they’re in a fully supportive environment. They just show out [and] I can feel the Wynn’s smiling.” 

In March, the organization held their 18th Annual Justin Wynn Leadership Academy 3-on-3 Basketball Tournament, which garnered nearly 300 youth players, emulating a cross-section of the Evanston community.

“The 3-on-3 tournament means so much, not just to the kids who are playing, but to anyone who’s ever played in this tournament, to the Wynn family and to Mr. and Mrs. Wynn who started this tradition and would love to know that we’ve kept it going nearly a decade,” Hartenstein said. “These are the intangible aspects of [the Evanston] community. It’s hard to even put into words what they mean but I do know that [the city] would look so different if these things were to go away.”

Photo courtesy of Carrie Ost

By providing a solid foundation, the organization’s leaders gain a level of satisfaction knowing that they are contributing directly to the Wynners’ profound development.

“Watching these young people grow up and become the amazing leaders and humans that they are is pretty special,” Bowen said. “We had some graduates come back to the [most] recent Red Tie Soiree in February, and to see them now out of college and still giving back to the communities that they live in, I’m like, ‘That is a legacy that we need to protect forever.’”

Hartenstein attests to how Justin Wynn has shaped her character and her worldview. 

“I don’t think I would be the person I am today or be as driven and as steadfast in my beliefs if it wasn’t for the Justin Wynn Leadership Academy showing me from a young age, not just what those beliefs are, but like what they look like practically, and how fulfilling it [can be] to stay true to them,” Hartenstein said.

The JWLA helps youth develop a strong sense of empathy for the experiences of others. To feel with people, to lead with humility and to listen with an intent to understand are customs that shape the lives of those who have the privilege of interacting with the organization.

“I think I became much more empathetic, seeing people from so many different walks of life and they taught me not to judge anyone on a purely surface level. I realized that it’s not just us helping them. They’re very much helping us too,” Lindroth said.

Lindroth reflects on the lessons that she learned along the way that she is certain will stick with her for the rest of her life.

“Just because you’re older than somebody does not mean you are smarter or you can’t learn something from [them]. Just because you’re more educated than somebody doesn’t mean you can’t learn from them. In fact, you can learn from literally anybody and when you meet anybody, you should be open to the opportunity to learn more about them, more about the world and more about yourself. You really don’t have to [give] anything to help somebody but your time, and the willingness and compassion [to do so],” Lindroth said.

As Wynners take their next step forward after graduating from high school, many are proud to carry with them the stories of everyone they’ve spoken with, learned from and felt empathy towards during their involvement with Justin Wynn. 

“There’s 700+ Wynners and everyone takes different paths. But I think the lessons we’ve learned through Justin Wynn, that deep commitment to community—however you define it—is always there,” said the organization’s current president, Ravi Randhava, who was selected as an awardee of the Justin Wynn Leadership Award in 1996.

Bowen affirms that he is ‘here for the long haul,’ and will continue to embrace the joys and challenges with enthusiasm.

“I made a promise to Mr. Wynn when I first joined, I was like, ‘Look, you’ve got me. I’m not going anywhere.’ So as long as they’ll have me, I’m sticking around. And I hope I get to stick around for a long time because it’s been one of the great joys of my life to be a part of this and play a small role in it,” he said. 

During a time that is often marked by change and uncertainty, Wynners value the presence of the JWLA that fosters stability through its deep commitment to longevity.

“In many ways, [Evanston] feels like a small town, but it is also a big city. It’s easy to get wrapped up in all the things Evanston has to offer but I think Justin Wynn always brought me back down to Earth. [Justin Wynn] is one of the only things in my life from fifth to 12th grade that was consistently there, and I always felt like I had people to lean on in [the] JWLA that made everything else easier,” Westover said.

For those affiliated with the organization, the mere mention of Justin Wynn carries significant weight, and an inclination to serve and guide the Evanston community.

Photo courtesy of Carrie Ost

“My favorite aspect of [Justin Wynn] is the deepening of my ties to my hometown. When you tell someone in Evanston that you’re a part of the Justin Wynn organization, it holds with it a level of gravitas but it also brings with it a responsibility to be a leader in our community,” Bowen said. “Being a part of [Justin Wynn] is beyond an honor. I treasure all the relationships I’ve built, because they are lifelong. You make friends as part of this organization for life.

Within spaces like Justin Wynn, where intentionality converges with action, Hartenstein believes that its commitment to fostering genuine engagement creates a pathway towards a more inclusive and equitable Evanston.

“Evanston is both a really tight knit community, and a community that needs to consider what it means to be tight knit and actually equitable and engaging and welcoming to everyone. I think the things that make Evanston that way are spaces like Justin Wynn, that are super intentional,” Hartenstein said. “In our mission, we [explicitly say that] we want to build youth leadership through community service. That is our bread and butter and part of every single thing we do. That kind of intentionality of making our values align with our actions is something that all of Evanston can benefit from.” 

The vision of the JWLA surrounds the notion that an investment in Evanston’s young people is an investment in the future. Ost suggests that empowering youth can lead to the development of a resilient society capable of making local aspirations actionable.

“I hope that our existence is infusing in the community this notion of leadership at all ages. There are tons of amazing nonprofits doing really important work in Evanston in all sorts of capacities and Justin Wynn is one of the ways that we [can] make systemic change—by empowering youth to see themselves as people who can make a difference,” Ost said.

For nearly four decades since Justin Wynn’s passing, the JWLA has positioned Evanston’s young people to embody the values that Justin Wynn unrelentingly did, while bettering the local community in the process.

“Justin Wynn and Evanston are synonymous in so many ways,” Randhava said. “When I think about Justin Wynn and when I think about Evanston, I think about strong communities of folks who are deeply engaged. I think about lasting relationships. I think there are so many synergies. Justin Wynn has been a part of Evanston’s history and Evanston is really at the core of Justin Wynn. You can’t separate them [and] I can’t think of one without the other.” 

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Jilian Denlow
Jilian Denlow, Executive Editor
Hi! My name is Jilian Denlow (she/her). I am a senior and one of the Executive Editors, overseeing Feature & Sports. As a freshman, I immediately felt welcomed and encouraged to be a part of the community. My utmost priority is to make others feel like they belong in this space. In my role, I hope to depict a more inclusive, whole and authentic snapshot of the community at-large. Outside of the Evanstonian, I play soccer for ETHS and a local club team. In my free time, I enjoy spending time with friends and going to the beach.
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