URBANA – Sam Banks, the public face of Cunningham Children's Home for two decades, will leave next month to take a new job in suburban Chicago.
Cunningham's president and chief executive officer since 1988, Banks has accepted a job as CEO of Glenwood School for Boys and Girls. His last day at Cunningham will be Feb. 29.
Banks, 52, said the decision was the toughest he's ever had to make. He announced his plans Friday at an emotional meeting with staff members.
"It was a very difficult choice," he said Monday. "Sometimes things come to a point where you feel called to serve in another place and environment. That's what I have before me now, an opportunity to do some really neat and positive things."
It's also a chance to return to his Chicago roots. He grew up in Chicago, where his mother still lives and his stepfather passed away recently. His oldest, son Bryan, is an accountant there, and his youngest, daughter Danielle, will graduate in May from Centennial High School.
"It was a good time to make a change," he said. "This provides me an opportunity to be closer to home and family."
The announcement was "a big surprise to everybody," said Cloydia Hill Larimore, Cunningham's vice president for development. But she added, "It's a great opportunity for him."
Banks said he wasn't looking for a new job but was recruited by Glenwood, which offers residential, education and life-skills programs for socially and economically disadvantaged children at campuses in Glenwood and St. Charles.
"What really appealed to me is the opportunity to work with kids in inner-city Chicago and poverty situations in the Chicago area, in a residential and school environment. They have really turned around some lives here," he said.
Glenwood School is larger than Cunningham and privately funded (with a $60 million endowment), giving it the freedom to work without the constraints of state funding, he said. While its clients are poor and considered "at risk," they don't come with some of the severe behavior or emotional issues common to Cunningham's clients, he said.
Founded as an orphanage in 1895, Cunningham has seen its mission change dramatically since Banks joined the staff 25 years ago. Then a home for abused or neglected children, it now works with children who have severe emotional, behavioral, developmental or mental health disorders.
Under Banks' leadership, it has grown from a home of 57 children, a staff of 75 and an annual budget of $1 million to a multifaceted child-welfare agency with 222 employees and a budget of $12.5 million.
It offers residential, community-based and educational services to more than 260 youths annually. It's also in the last phase of a multimillion-dollar expansion plan and capital campaign, with a new residential treatment center, spiritual life center and, soon, a new educational complex.
"Sam took Cunningham to a whole new level," said John Thies, president of the Cunningham Foundation's board. "He built upon the successes of his predecessor and always had a great vision for the agency's capabilities."
Thies said Banks always placed the needs of children first, which is reflected in the attitudes of other Cunningham employees and board members.
Even as CEO, he made a point of dropping into the cottages or classrooms to maintain contact with children, and Banks said he will miss that most after he leaves.
"He is so well-regarded by the staff and by the children," Thies said. "That to me speaks volumes about what he saw as the most important part of his job."
Larimore agreed: "It's a very loving, nurturing place where we do very difficult work. That heart, that safety, that secure, loving environment, that is the tone that Sam set. That's what you want in a children's home."
Board members said they will rely on experienced staff members who have worked with Banks for years to carry on that philosophy until a new director is hired.
Banks is well-known in the community – in part because of his second career as a collegiate basketball official – and moves easily among business leaders as well as social service advocates, Thies said.
"He has been the face of Cunningham," Thies said. " It will be a challenge to replace Sam. With every change like this, there's an opportunity."
Banks said he's proud that he helped raise Cunningham's profile and gratified to have touched so many families' lives.
"When I first started, people used to say that we were the best-kept secret in Champaign-Urbana," he said.
He retired from officiating after last season because of knee problems, which made it easier to accept his new job.
"I do miss it," he said. "It's kind of tough watching ball games when I see my buddies running up and down the court making calls. I'm starting to get used to it."