The Sanfilippo Family Opens Their Hearts and Home

Meet the remarkable Barrington Hills family who has forever lifted up and helped grow local and regional charities.

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story by Gregory Leifel | Photo by April Graves

When Jasper and Marian Sanfilippo began filling their Barrington Hills home with automatic music instruments in 1975, little did they realize that the future sum total of their collection would result in the finest—and most historically significant—Mechanical Music Collection in the world. But it’s the way the family chose to utilize the collection through their Sanfilippo Foundation that has forever changed the greater Barrington community, impacting hundreds of thousands of lives through the millions of dollars raised for charity. It has become an international treasure, right here in Barrington.

In 1985, Jasper (then CEO of John B. Sanfilippo & Son, Inc., in Elgin, Ill.), and his wife, Marian, began opening their home and growing collection to a handful of local charities each year. Utilizing a newly purchased 1927 Wurlitzer Theater Organ with 2,400 pipes, charity concerts were held in the living room for Saint Anne School in Barrington, Arden Shore Child & Family Services, Barrington High School, and a few others.

The events quickly outgrew the seating capacity in that first room, so in 1992, Jasper completed a 325-seat theater addition and expanded the Wurlitzer into an 8,000 pipe masterpiece of engineering and sound. The music machine collection and the public’s interest began to grow congruently, due in large part to Jasper’s passion for mechanical music, as well as the welcoming and philanthropic nature of the family.

The five adult children of Jasper and Marian—John, James, Jeffrey, Lisa, and Jasper Jr., whose own homes now surround their parents’—shepherd the nonprofit Sanfilippo Foundation and its mission of utilizing the collection for education and fundraising. The Foundation assists several dozen charities annually that serve children and families, health and human services, and arts and culture. The impressive record of helping charities in collectively raising 10 million dollars in the last eight years is a story that up to this point has not been shared in detail because of the humble nature of the Sanfilippo family.

The Sanfilippo Foundation was formed in 2002 to serve the community and as a way to protect some of the historically significant artifacts, including the showpiece of the collection, the 1890 Eden Palais Carousel (the most complete example of a European Salon Carousel in existence). Over time, the family began to learn that not only did others enjoy and find these mechanical wonders fascinating, but the collection had a unique strength. The collection drew new, potential supporters to a charity event, thereby increasing fundraising and membership possibilities. A charity could count on guests returning to events annually and bringing friends to view the collection.

In 2007, upon Jasper’s full retirement, the Sanfilippo family made a commitment to formalize their Foundation. They wanted to turn it into a more powerful ally to the local and regional nonprofit community. The Foundation’s unique methods are best illustrated with a story of one of the charities it has nurtured and assisted over the last seven years.

Generous Angels Help “Little Angels”

The Little Angels Center for Exceptional Care, in Elgin, Ill., provides a home to 57 children and young adult residents, all who require 24/7 physical care for complex medical needs. The residents require wheelchairs for mobility and total assistance for all their daily needs. In 2009, the Little Angels Center approached the Sanfilippo Foundation with an interest in garnering new supporters. After a consultation, planning for their first event later that year began. As a side project, six of the Little Angels residents were brought into the Carousel Pavilion a few weeks later for a recreational outing. With many residents having low cognitive skills, it was thought that the lights, music, and motion of the carousel would help stimulate their senses as they were escorted in their wheelchairs around the carousel. What happened next is one of the most profound occurrences in the Foundation’s history. The Little Angels residents rocked and danced in their chairs, smiled and laughed, with some becoming verbally expressive in a new manner. It humbled and moved this author like no other event since, and became a catalyst for what the Sanfilippo Foundation and collection could truly accomplish.

Little Angels Center held a Wurlitzer Concert fundraiser later that year, drawing several hundred guests, many of them new to the organization. At the concert, they announced that their first, annual gala would be held at the Sanfilippo Estate in 2010 and include a house tour and dinner in the Carousel Pavilion with auctions and a raffle. That successful event was followed up with events in 2011, 2012, and with sell-outs in 2013 and 2014. Their 2015 event also sold out and raised over $200,000 during the evening.

For a care facility that depends in large part on Illinois state funding, that’s life-changing support. With additional funds raised from another event Little Angels participated in, mechanical, patient-lifting systems to help the care-givers and residents, were also funded, bringing the total raised for Little Angels in 2015 to nearly a quarter of a million dollars.

A visit to the Little Angels Center for Exceptional Care and is the chance to see the dedicated staff and the exceptionally kind treatment of these children and young adults. It’s a most inspiring and moving facility. Parents of the residents who would not be able to afford the constant medical assistance their children require all speak of Little Angels as their child’s loving home. So moved by the care and dedication at Little Angels was Jasper and Marian’s son, Jeffrey (current CEO of John B. Sanfilippo & Son Inc.), joined its board of directors.

Pursuing Best Practices

With each charity event held, the Sanfilippo Foundation gains new insight into Best Practices. Each charity has brought a new perspective to what worked and what didn’t. Ideas were shared freely with each of the charities to enhance fundraising for all. New ways to engage event sponsors and underwriters were developed by the Foundation. Personal connections were passed along to address specific needs. Consulting services were provided as part of the planning, leading to a more professional event. The Foundation’s preferred caterers and vendors became enamored with the charity’s goals, and contributed to them with discounts or donated items. A team effort was growing rapidly, and the total funds raised annually to assist the charities quietly climbed to over a million dollars a year in 2010. That has continued every year since.

In 2012, the Festival of Children Foundation of Costa Mesa, Calif., brought its Carousel of Possible Dreams idea to James Sanfilippo. Festival of Children Executive Director, Sandy Segerstrom Daniels, asked the Sanfilippo Foundation for a National Partnership in raising money for local children charities utilizing the Eden Palais Carousel. A new concept was implemented, and, to date, Ronald McDonald House Charities of Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana, St. Jude Children Research Hospital, the National Diaper Bank Network, Easter Seals, and Little Angles Center have benefited from nearly $850,000 raised, in total, over the last four events. “All for the children,” as Sandy Segerstrom Daniels advocates.

The event is completely underwritten by the Partnership and generous sponsors, and all money raised goes to the participating charities. Guests ride the Carousel with cell phones in hand, calling and texting colleagues and friends to complete their personal funding goal, after hearing the touching stories of the families tended to by the charities. As 2016 will mark the fifth anniversary of the Carousel of Possible Dreams Gala, the Sanfilippo Foundation and Festival of Children Foundation’s Partnership expects to exceed the million dollar mark in fund raising efforts from this event. Dreams, truly, are possible.

Listening to Community Needs

This unique, private venue and small, family Foundation has the ability to adapt quickly to the community’s and nonprofit’s needs.Gigi’s PlayHouse, serving the Down syndrome community, was offered the facility to hold some of its first nationwide expansion meetings. Barrington Community Theater held its inaugural performance, and their second this past year, kicking off dance and music theater opportunities for local children and adults. A quickly-arranged, informative parent meeting was held to address a dire grade school issue with a psychiatrist present to offer advice and solutions for parents.

When one of Barrington’s philanthropic and artistic icons (and Quintessential Barrington contributor), Photographer Thomas Balsamo was diagnosed with cancer, the Foundation was able to maneuver quickly to put together a Wurlitzer Concert and raise more than $16,000 for his unmet medical expenses. Other local families have had some of their medical needs quietly funded by the Foundation. Larger charities who serve the greater community like the American Cancer Society, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago, and Home of the Sparrow have been assisted, as well as smaller, up-and-coming nonprofits.

Many of the charities report record-breaking attendance and fundraising. An annual awareness calendar called Beautiful Things With Wings utilizing the Carousel (now in its 10th year) is produced by Light Drawn Studios to support WINGS (Women in Need Growing Stronger) in Palatine, Ill.. A local business, INTREN Corporation, helped completely underwrite and purchase tickets for the Interfaith Committee for Detained Immigrants’ fundraiser at the estate, guaranteeing a tremendous and successful event. (I.C.D.I. brings services and dignity to those awaiting immigration status).

The Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation—with 35 Medal of Honor winners in attendance—held an event to treat and honor these veteran heroes. At the Foundation’s annual Christmas Concerts, guests bring donated toys for Tom’s Toys For Tots, (more than 2,500 toys in 2014) in honor of the late Thomas Boyle, a Barrington Hills resident and former Marine and Chicago Policeman who was killed in Afghanistan. And the list goes on and on.

Helping to support the Foundation’s charitable endeavors and fulfill its educational goal, private tours of the Collection are given to libraries, senior centers, park districts, churches, schools, and others. This effort provides opportunities for elementary and high school students and others to experience mechanical music history. For students to understand that early Thomas Edison Talking Machines and phonographs have listening devices similar to today’s ear buds, or that a paper music roll was one of the first computer programs, is quite the revelation. For many seniors, especially widows, touring the Collection is a moving, once-in-a-lifetime experience that brings long-forgotten joy back into their lives. The Sanfilippo family has been told thousands of times in the last eight years how moving the guided tour is by guests from all over the country and the world. The tour groups (and event guests) support the restaurants, shops, hotels, including Barrington House Bed and Breakfast, Chessie’s, Ice House Mall, Norton’s U.S.A., Barrington History Museum, and more. A whole community is impacted and engaged.

Foundation concerts and tours not only give opportunity to view the Collection, but bring world-class theater organists and other performers to Barrington, many of them local talent. McArthur Foundation Grant recipient Reginald Robinson performed a ragtime concert with historical perspectives. Corky Seigel brought his award-winning Chamber Blues Band to the Sanfilippo stage. The Laura Secord Secondary School Choir from Ontario, Canada, toured the Collection and performed with Canadian Tenor Robert Pilon. North Barrington resident, Opera Bass Baritone William Powers, has entertained audiences and mentored up-and-coming local operatic performers at the estate. A Youth Camp for Theater Organists is held at the estate, along with an ongoing effort to encourage individual, young organists, as well as student engineers and student filmmakers. Fenton High School’s film classes tour every semester to learn about the silent-movie era, and more. A student silent-film festival incorporating a live theater organist is in the works for 2016. The Woodstock Mozart Festival has held several concerts, featuring classical music. Tickets and other items are often donated to various charities for fundraising auctions and raffles, extending the Foundation’s reach. Sanfilippo Foundation members keep learning with every event, and the charities, students, seniors, businesses, and our community benefit.

The Sanfilippo family invites the nonprofit charities into Jasper and Marian’s private home, which covers much of the overhead and underwriting of a large portion of the charity work. The family members often attend the events and make personal donations. John, James, Jeffrey, Lisa, and Jasper Jr.—all innovators in the Sanfilippo family businesses—challenge their Foundation to be innovative and pioneering with what it can accomplish. This article’s accompanying list of Charitable Organizations Served speaks volumes of the Foundation’s ability to address a wide variety of the community’s needs. While the list includes charities from 2008–2015, the family has been holding regular charity events since 1985.

Jasper and Marian Sanfilippo’s grand vision of restoring mechanical music machines and the subsequent result of generously sharing their Collection has reached astounding proportions in a few short years. And yet this gentle, down-to-earth couple and their children remain more than humble, preferring to talk about the hundreds of people who have helped them along the way, and of the recipients of each partner charity’s work. The extraordinary effort and commitment to collect and restore the mechanical music instruments was—in and of itself—a monumental endeavor. But the vision to utilize the Collection for the benefit of humanity and community is, and will be, the Sanfilippo legacy. And with five grown children and 13 grandchildren, the vision and passion will live well on into the community’s and the family's future.

As the Sanfilippo Foundation’s executive director, I’m often asked the question, “Why do they do this?” It’s not a difficult thing to understand when you are in their presence, eating in their kitchen, sitting in the living room, or going out to dinner. Like many Italian families, they always make sure you are fed, and more than you probably should eat.

But it’s the laughter around the kitchen table that includes all their guests; the tipping of not just the waitress, but secretly, the bus boy, too, at the restaurant; their interest in you, personally, that they take, even amidst the huge and elaborate Collection. It’s their attendance at nearly every event; the generosity of their time with guests; and the invitation to the volunteers and catering staff at an event to temporarily stop what they are doing and ride the carousel. When the Sanfilippo family’s door opens, whether to an individual, a tour group, or a charity, you become a family guest in their home. It’s just that simple. They are a quintessential part of Barrington and an international treasure.

Gregory Leifel is the executive director of the Sanfilippo Foundation. He may be reached at 847-691-7425, or Director@SanfilippoFoundation.org. To learn more, visit www.Sanfilippofoundation.org.