Quintessential people

Jennifer McAndrews: Her Gift of Love


by David Rutter | Photograph by thomas balsamo

Jennifer McAndrews could not stay away from children who needed her love. If Barrington’s “Let It Be Us” organization is successful, her love could span generations.

Jennifer McAndrews could have slid into that comfortable, sage plateau of life between mile markers 40 and 50 where daily life finally makes sense. You have found what works by that time; what you need; what matters to you. Just relax.

But that serene “sailing-gently-into-the-sunset” trope will never work for McAndrews. She’s not the type to retire, even if she wanted to retire. “Got to walk the talk,” she says. She’s a mom on a mission. She’s walking the talk.

There’s structure, organization, partners, good community instincts, and the generosity and innovation of Barrington on display that aids her cause. But it’s more fundamental.

It’s just love at work. Love for children. Love of children. Just love.

“Every child has a right to be loved. It’s a human right,” she announces. “It’s not a question to be debated. It’s a statement of principle.”

Stand back, or lend a hand to this quest, she implies. Pitch in, or get out of the way. Keep your soul open. Bring you heart to the game. There are children in your hometown who go to sleep every night alone, ignored and—worst of all from McAndrews’ view—unloved.

She does not view that reality as merely unfortunate. It’s a wrong that good people must make right. You almost sense that she will…not…stand…for…it.

And if her personal history is any indication of what’s ahead, she will demand children in her life will be loved, even children she has yet to meet. And maybe thousands more if her cohorts in Barrington’s emerging “Let It Be Us” organization deliver on their hopes, too.

Jennifer McAndrews is determinedly charming, bright, and energetic. But mostly she is on a mission—like a Navy Seal commando in comfy heels. The energy required to live her life must be astounding.

Along with husband Peter, she has co-raised six sons. To make sure her mind is focused on the order of introduction, she flashes a group photo on the back of her cell phone case, just in case she’s asked.

In chronological order, she says, “There’s Ryan who was 25 today (in September), Michael 22, Jack is 20, Matthew is 18, Paul 16, and Kevin 13. They are all good boys. We’ve been blessed.”

By any measurements, a 25-year marriage, six sons, and a whirlwind reputation raising cash for children at Saint Anne Catholic School and Parish would be a fully-loaded resume. But seven years ago she realized it would not be enough.

“We were at a game with good friends who were doing the volunteer program ‘Safe Families,’” she recalled. “We saw they had a little boy with them they were caring for. Peter thought that was a great idea, and we went home and talked about it. And then we talked with the boys about it. There is so much giving back to kids in other countries, but these were children in our own backyard. This could be a great opportunity for our kids to learn how to walk the talk.”

So they joined Safe Families.

“When Safe Families was started,” she said, “it was temporary relief for families and all voluntary. Perhaps a family is homeless and the children can’t go to the shelter. So the parents have three months to find housing, figure out their lives, and get their children back.”

That’s what it started out to be. “Our first were twin infant boys who were born nine weeks prematurely,” McAndrews said. “The mother was not improving (by being involved) and we eventually contacted the grandmother and said if her daughter didn’t call, the kids would wind up in (state mandated) foster care. Eventually that mom went to an agency and picked out a family and one young couple adopted both boys. The couple eventually moved to Cleveland where they are as strong and happy as they can be.”

Then there was Kheari, who was going to be flipped into the foster system before they intercepted his path. “He’s 5 now. We were granted full-time guardianship in August until he’s 18,” she added. “My friends all asked why we weren’t seeking to adopt. But his mother was a teen mom, a good mom who was just immature. It’s very clear he loves his mother and they have a special bond together. She knows we’re the only real family he has now. But we try to keep an open positive relationship.”

“It’s been seven years and now six children have come through our home. We had the twin boys, two other brothers, then Kheari … and now Alexis who is 2,” she says.

When Barrington photographer Susan McConnell founded “Let It Be Us” (could a title ever be more appropriate?), the idea was to build an organization that added hometown spirit and financial muscle to the traditional foster children programs. And perhaps one day they’d help transform Illinois’ foster parenthood system into a child-centric pathway to safe, permanent homes. Mostly, connect more children with more love.

“Let It Be Us” wants adoptions, foster parents, guardians and, most of all, a clearly defined, accountable path to safety that does not trap children in permanent limbo.

“A foster parent now knows the birth mother can come back into the court in five or six years and ask for the child,” she says. “Obviously that possibility would upset us. That’s why we evolved a relationship with Kheari’s mother. She had no one else but us, either. We all know we are his family and will always be his family.”

Because the state system does not hold biological parents to a specific timeframe, foster parents often are unprepared and return the child. In those cases, the child goes back into the system. That’s why there are 3,300 Illinois children who are caught in the state foster system and might never get out. The nation has 400,000 in state foster care and many will be handed from home to home. When they turn 18, they will be dumped into life.

That is unless “Let It Be Us” helps Illinois readjust by aiding overburdened state caseworkers place children. And most of all, by finding adoptive parents.

While the organization shifts into higher gear, life at the McAndrews home remains as it has been for 25 years: tender, genuine, and slightly crazy in a good way.

“Peter tells me this is all mine, but the truth is that I couldn’t have done any of this without his support and my sons,” McAndrews says. “We share it, but maybe this is my journey.”

And the family?

“The boys all thought it was an amazing thing when we talked about it. I think it’s given us the chance to show them what giving back means. But you know, it’s hard to start all over when you’ve had kids. The boys have been great with keeping them occupied, playing puzzles, giving me a needed break. Kheari and Alexis are just like any 5- and 2-year-olds.”

Jennifer McAndrew offers rich testimony to how full life can be when it is fully engaged. When she graduated from Barrington High in 1986, she was a normal kid from a traditional home. No foster children. “I loved to babysit when I was a kid,” she says with a laugh.

She works out regularly, plays golf as long as it’s only nine holes, and belongs to a local book club. She seldom has time to read any of the books. That’s embarrassing. She will do better; she promises. One of these days, her life might slow down enough to pick up a novel.

Or maybe it won’t. After all, she’s on a mission.

Here are some words that others shared about Jennifer McAndrews

Janet Asher, Friend

I met Jen years ago at our neighborhood pool in Fox Point. We both had several young children roaming around and we were both expecting our 5th child at the same time. As Jen and her husband Pete continued on with their 6th child and several foster children after that; they also let a “7th son” named Michael Jordan into their family.

We lived down the street from the McAndrews and this is where the most incredible relationship was born. My son Michael, who has Down syndrome, would ride his bike, sing, and stop at their house for a visit, and play and hang-out with her boys. Despite his disability, Jen and her family saw these things in him and have come alongside him as friends and family instead of treating him as someone who is different. The McAndrews home was a most welcoming and safe home for my son, and that relationship continues today as the boys congratulate each other on birthdays, family gatherings, and other special events in the community.

Jen is a very spirited, generous, kind person who I call my friend. How she finds time for all her volunteering activities is a wonder to me. Her unconditional love for my son has given us a beautiful reminder of what it looks like to love one another. Thank you, Jen.

Sharon Clifford, Friend

I have known Jennifer for over 15 years. Jennifer’s 3rd son and my oldest daughter were in the same class together at Saint Anne School.

I have witnessed Jennifer raise her six boys with passion and true devotion, and her growing desire to share her family and her experience with foster children. I have admired her constant ability to keep her focus on what’s important in raising and caring for children.

The gift that I admire most about Jennifer is her unconditional devotion to her family and her friends. She has such immense love for her children, and as a mother, I admire her ability to stay grounded under any circumstances. She has such a strong sense of what it takes to raise not only her own children, but others, as well. We all know the challenges of being a mother to our own children, but it takes a very special person to give back and take on more children when they are not yours. These children needed someone to stand up and never back down and fight for them, and Jennifer is doing that every day!

Maddie Dardanes, Friend

I know Jennifer through her work as a mother, foster mother, and advocate. I began babysitting for the McAndrews family during my senior year of high school. She was the person who inspired me to study social work in college; and because of that, I was able to find my purpose. I honestly have no idea how this woman can chase after two young children, help to start a nonprofit, and grocery shop for a small army all in one day. The amount of love that Jennifer has for her children, biological and not biological, inspires me every day. Her dedication to children in the foster care system is unrelenting and has encouraged me to also be a voice for those who do not always have one. Jennifer is a perfect example of someone who is selfless; she will go above and beyond to make someone else’s day better and is always putting the needs of others before her own.

Danielle and Jonathan Eisenberg, Friends

Jennifer and her family fostered our twin boys for nine weeks between their birth and our adoption. We have remained in touch and visited several times with her family over the last five years!

My family will be forever grateful for the generosity and love that Jennifer, Peter, and her boys showed to our twins during those difficult early weeks caring for newborn premie twins. We feel so blessed to know that they were cared for in a loving home, and that Jen and Peter slept with the boys on their chests so they would feel warm and loved and safe. It’s a joy now to visit and see how the McAndrews’ neighbors, friends, and relatives still welcome the boys—and us—as if we’re extended family. After spending months of sleepless nights caring for our boys, Jen delivered them into our arms the morning of a Chicago blizzard. And, she brought clothes, diapers, formula, and a home-cooked tray of pasta to get us through the first few days. We could never express the extent of our gratitude to Jen that she was the one to pick up our boys from the NICU, keep them safe and loved until our adoption match, and deliver them into our arms the first moment we became parents.

Margaret and Bill Graff, Friends

We have known Jennifer for the past nine years. We first met Jennifer when her youngest son Kevin and our son Will were in the same kindergarten class at Saint Anne School. That friendship grew through school, church, and Fox Point neighborhood activities.

Jennifer is the epitome of a giving, passionate volunteer. She has devoted countless hours/days/years to the communities she’s involved in. As a Fox Point resident, she was a Co-Chair of the Dolphins swim team for many years, overseeing concessions and finances. As a six-time SAS parent, she has volunteered as room parent, committee member, and helped start a school-wide Spirit Day, serving both as a community builder and technology fundraiser. She has dedicated her time to many fundraising efforts—including running silent auctions for galas and spearheading a Saint Anne cookbook.

Jennifer is a true inspiration. She is down-to-earth, caring, giving, and always looking for how she can give back. She inspires us to do more and to be better citizens of this world. It is a privilege and a pleasure to call her a dear friend!

Beth McAndrews, Sister-in-Law

Jennifer McAndrews is one of the most generous, energetic, selfless, and happiest people I know, and I am so blessed to call her my sister-in-law and dearest friend.

I am truly in awe of Jennifer’s endless amount of love and willingness to help others. She does what most of us will not and cannot do. She gives of herself and time to help others and most recently, being a beautiful mother to children that cannot be with their own mothers. Some of us are willing to write a check or donate a few hours at a food pantry, but Jennifer gives her soul, heart, and time to raising children and mentoring mother’s in the foster care system. 

One example was her complete willingness to drive into the city in the middle of the night to pick up premature twin babies boys from the hospital, because she could not fathom that they would go into the foster care system. She then proceeded to love and care for those miracle baby boys until they were able to be adopted. To this day, she keeps in touch with that family. I’m not sure how many lives she has touched and changed, but she has most certainly touched mine.

Susan McConnell, Friend

The formation of Let It Be Us was an opportunity to create a “Dream Team” of board members who would be so much more than bench warmers and rubber stampers. They would be leaders willing to roll up their sleeves and do the heavy lifting for a nonprofit startup that is dedicated to supporting our most vulnerable children. Going where no nonprofits had gone before, this effort, and being on this board, would not be for the faint of heart. It was serendipitous that Jennifer McAndrews happened to be searching for a cause to call her own. As the founder of Let It Be Us, she was my #1 choice for the Board Chair position.

When Jennifer says, “There are no unwanted children, only unfound families,” she not only talks the talk, but she walks the walk. Her direct and current experience in Illinois foster care gives her exceptional expertise, and her passion for children’s rights gives her a unique drive. She is as creative, organized, hard-working, and resourceful as our country’s top CEOs, and we are fortunate to have her at the helm of what I believe is the most groundbreaking and exciting nonprofit in Illinois. Jennifer agreed to become the Board Chair the instant she was asked, because she firmly believes that if a child belongs to a family, that child will have his or her own dream time and a shot at a beautiful and meaningful life.

Almost every successful person begins with two beliefs: the future can be better than the present, and we have the power to make it so. Jennifer personifies this, and I look forward to watching Let It Be Us change the lives of Illinois children in foster care under her leadership.

Kerry Miller, Friend

Jennifer and I been friends for about 18 years. Both of our families live in Fox Point. I am a fellow board member and the treasurer of Let It Be Us. We have spent a lot of time together volunteering in the classroom, lunchroom, and playground at Saint Anne School. When, at times, I would feel overwhelmed with life, I would see Jen—a mother of five—with one in a car seat and #6 on the way, still attending every meeting and volunteering to help with any need.

Jen’s involvement with Safe Families motivated my husband and me to get involved and help some struggling families by offering short-term care for their children. In fact, her example of parenting these children has led to an increased awareness in Barrington of programs available to help those most vulnerable and in need.

Wendy Noonan, Friend and Foster Mom

I have known Jennifer for 18 years. Something that I have learned from Jennifer is she has the coveted recipe for a successful, fulfilling, and meaningful life. She took God’s recipe for life, made it her own, tweaked it when needed, took away things that didn’t make it better, and then always adds her secret ingredient of love which truly makes it so special.

Jennifer would say that all of us already have the ingredients in the cupboard of our soul—and tucked away behind the clutter of meaningless containers labeled hate, greed, indifference, and intolerance—are the five special ingredients: love, faith, family, education, and humor.

The one labeled love is the greatest of all—it cannot be measured, but is always felt. Its actions speak louder than words. The second, faith, is a staple of life. Faith in a “higher power” is a very important ingredient in Jennifer’s recipe for life. The third, family, is the one Jennifer uses in large quantities, and keep in mind that everyone is family to Jennifer. Family gives Jennifer strength and when mixed with love and faith, becomes magical.

The fourth, education, or the desire for knowledge, is the spice of the recipe. It opens up all possibilities, and provides Jennifer insight and instills the desire to support and help those in need. Finally, humor is the ingredient that binds her recipe together!

There you have it—Jennifer’s recipe for life! We should all use it because it works! Most important, we should support Jennifer’s desire to share it with our next generation, creating a lot of amazing people in this world. God bless you my dear friend!

Fr. Bernie Pietrzak, Pastor

As the Pastor of Saint Anne Catholic Community, I have had the privilege of knowing Jennifer and her family over the last six years. Here at Saint Anne, we invite our parishioners to servant discipleship and leadership. Since I first arrived here, Jennifer has exhibited both of those qualities in such amazing ways through her involvement and commitment to our parish community. She has generously shared her many gifts and talents in responding to the needs of our parish school and our faith community at large.

As a Servant Leader, Jennifer has worked tirelessly on our Spirit Day activities for our children and young people in our parish school and also helped to reshape and simplify the way in which our parish school organizes our graduation and commencement ceremonies. Especially in my early years as pastor, Jennifer also shared her wisdom, experience, and perspective with me personally regarding our parish school, as we faced some challenges and worked to improve the quality, vitality, and appeal of Catholic education in our community. 

As a Servant Disciple, Jennifer has always been ready to dive in and help to organize a number of our needed parish fundraising activities through the years. Be it Las Vegas Nights or Trivia Nights, when she would volunteer to chair these events, I never had to worry about the quality or success of these parish gatherings. Her commitment to excellence and her inclusion of all parishioners helped us to not only achieve our financial goals—but served to build-up a spirit of fellowship and unity in our parish community. 

Finally, as such a wonderful human being, Jennifer’s generosity of spirit, exhibited by both herself and her family, in welcoming foster children into their home over these last years has been such an inspiration to me personally and such a strong witness of faith, hope, and love to the members of our parish community. Jennifer gives of herself with such a spirit selflessness and care for others. She is a woman of faith, who truly loves tenderly, acts justly, and walks humbly with God. 

Susan Stoga, Neighbor

Jennifer is my neighbor; we both live in Fox Point. I first met Jennifer when my son began swimming on the Fox Point swim team and Jen was a co-chair. I was awed by her no-nonsense attitude toward the 120 kids on the team, holding parents accountable for volunteering (as we are an all-volunteer team), and commitment to success for all swimmers. Not too long after, she and her family renovated the home across the street and she became my neighbor. In 2014, we both joined the board of Let It Be Us, a nonprofit that helps children living in foster care.

One of the first times I met Jennifer was at a Fox Point swim team meeting. She was straightforward and put the fear of God into all of us about making our volunteer commitments. Years later, I assumed the same role and I often channeled my “inner Jen” so that I could keep the accountability portion of the team in check, and this was before I knew her well. 

I’m in awe of how Jen honors the spirit of foster care as a foster parent. First and foremost, foster parents are there to help the children when their parents are working on whatever issues are keeping the family from being together. Reunification is always the first goal. It is very easy for those not working within/or with the system to judge birthmothers. Jen does the exact opposite. She works to help children in her care maintain relationships with their families, whether reunification is the goal or if parental rights have been terminated. She respects and honors the relationship children have with their birth parents and that is truly a gift to the children in her care.

Jen is also a person that very few people say no to. She continually offers up the right message and the right time to secure resources for Let It Be Us, Saint Anne’s or Basketball boosters, and people feel good about the donation of time, money, or resources. Few people can do this well, and Jen is one of them. Nothing stops her.

Susan Vrenios, Family Coach

I have known Jennifer for about five years through the Safe Families for Children program. I work as a Family Coach and Jennifer is a host parent to children whose parents need support during a rough time in their lives. She has hosted many children in her home and loves them as her own. She is always committed to empowering a parent who is suffering personal challenges in their life. She will move mountains to help a parent get housing, daycare, visitation, etc. Jennifer is passionate and generous with her time, talents, and love towards the families she helps. 

Kris Zerfass, Friend

We met through our sons Mike McAndrews and Matt Zerfass going to the University of Iowa, and became friends. 

We share being moms of all boys, and being Safe Families. Jennifer has a high bar for life, she is an incredible mom to her six sons and her Safe Family and foster children. She is in touch and connected with each of her children. What drew me to her was her sense of humor and mindful presence. She balances an incredible amount in her life, but gives her complete attention and compassion to what she is doing at the moment. I admire her, and love my time with her. I have been able to help her with Kheari, her Safe Family placement who she now has guardianship of, and we love having him. She has given him as much of herself as any of her children.

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David Rutter is a regular contributor to Quintessential Barrington.

Publisher’s Note: Quintessential People™ is a heartfelt collaboration between our publication and portrait artist Thomas Balsamo. Our goal is to share exceptional images and words that ring true about some of the finest, most inspiring people in our community. For more information, contact QB at publisher@qbarrington.com, or Thomas Balsamo (Portraits By Thomas) at 847-381-7710, or visit www.portraitsbythomas.com.