GP Vayr

Emily Cross Vayr, director of development at Champaign County Court Appointed Special Advocates, talks about her work Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019, in her office in Urbana.

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Each week, we offer a Q&A with a local personality. This week, Emily Cross Vayr, director of development at Champaign County Court Appointed Special Advocates and member of the Forty Under 40 Class of 2019, chats with staff writer Paul Wood about becoming president of Junior League next May and a little about Taylor Swift.

Where are you from, and how did you get here?

I was born in Chicago, moved around to several suburbs, and we finally settled in Chatham (south of Springfield) to be by my mom’s family when I was 12. Champaign-Urbana stole my heart as an undergraduate. I was thrilled when Bryan, now my husband, was accepted to the University of Illinois College of Law, and relieved when he found a terrific position two years ago as an attorney at Heyl Royster in Champaign.

Tell us about your family.

They truly inspire me, and I am so lucky to love them! They’re all givers. My dad helps people in recovery and advocates for access to substance abuse treatment, and my mom has been active at the statehouse on issues she cares about. My grandfather, a retired pastor, counsels inmates at the Cook County Jail. My grandmother, a retired school principal, goes across the country helping schools incorporate social and emotional learning. My sister is just now starting Parkland College, and I’m proud to report she wants to become a teacher in this community someday.

You’ve stayed in the area since graduating from the UI in 2012, so there must be something you like about our community?

I am not-so-secretly trying to lure all of my family to move here, too. My husband likes to say if you take where we grew up (small corn communities — his outside Rockford), add Chicago, and divide by two, you get Champaign-Urbana. What’s even better is our community is full of people who chose to live here, despite opportunities to go all over the world. It shows.

You have a bachelor’s degree and a master’s (from UI Springfield) in environmental studies, as well as an Illinois EPA internship. Have you continued to volunteer in this field?

The more I learned about our world as a student, the more I grew passionate about wanting to leave it a little better than how I found it. I still am involved in and support the University YMCA’s work in helping students find their passion for being good stewards of what we have been given. That can mean different things to different people, but what’s awesome is that we all have a unique role to play.

CASA is having its 25th anniversary here this year. What’s in the works to commemorate that?

It’s a huge honor that the community has supported CASA’s work for 25 years. We’ve come a long way from where we started: just a few volunteers worried about foster kids having an advocate in their corner. We’re grateful for our board for launching a “25 kids” program this year in honor of our 25th anniversary, where we are inviting fellow community members to help sponsor 25 CASA kids at $100 a month.

We also published a gorgeous children’s book this year called “A Place to Call Home,” written by our own staff member Ami Hays, which explains to foster children all about what happens to them when they are placed in foster care, who their CASA is, and that they aren’t alone.

What attracted you to working with CASA?

My father-in-law has been an advocate for foster children in the Rockford area for some time now, and I have always admired his dedication to fighting for the best possible outcome for his kids. My love for CASA became even stronger when I started and got to meet some of the children here. They are just as deserving as any other kids, and they certainly deserve someone to stand up for them.

Were you on CASA’s 2019 Illinois Marathon team? If so, was that your first marathon?

I ran the second leg of the relay, which was a super-fun introduction. When I started running, I was totally overcome with emotion and almost had to stop. The way the community cheers on its neighbors striving to become the best version of themselves just proved to me again that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. I can’t wait to help put together CASA’s team for 2020.

Junior League is hosting the Festival of Trees on Nov. 23. Anything new this year?

We’re so excited for our biggest year yet! Junior League has grown this event so much in the past few years, and we will take over both ballrooms of Hilton Garden Inn again this year. This year, the Family Winter Ball (formerly Daddy Daughter Dance — now moms can go with sons, and so on) will be one longer, more extravagant dance party instead of trying to split it into two seatings. We hope the change will allow dads, daughters, mothers and sons to enjoy their evening to the fullest.

Do you have a “guilty pleasure,” and what is it?

Video games. I’m a huge nerd, and I’m happy to report that hasn’t changed as I’ve gotten older. Growing up, I adored my older cousin Matt, and he played the coolest video games. One Christmas, my mom gifted me a PlayStation. I’ve been hooked since. It’s a fun and harmless way for my husband and I to hang out when we have some time to ourselves.

What’s your favorite sports team?

My husband and his family are Packers fans, and I know the haters are going to hate when they read this, but I love Aaron Rodgers. My mom subtly protests by “gifting” me Bears gear.

What would you order for your last meal?

Baguette, cheese, salami. With wine. Or nachos. Hard to decide. Can I have both?

Who are your favorite musicians, and why?

My friends know the highest compliment anyone has ever paid me is they called me Taylor Swift. I love Taylor Swift. I bring a new picture of Taylor Swift every time I visit my hairstylist. I think I relate to her music because she’s my age and is learning and growing and writing about it why it’s hard, and I earnestly love her earnestness. Also, she has great bangs.

What’s the happiest memory of your life?

This question tees me up perfectly to saying my wedding day! It really was, though. My husband and I met when we were 20, and we’ve come so far because of the people who love us. That day I looked around and found all of my family, some of whom haven’t spoken in years, dancing and celebrating together with friends from all of our walks of life. It was pure joy.

What was your first job, and how much did you make an hour?

My first job was as an intern at the Illinois House of Representatives. I was a 14-year-old, polo-wearing summer intern making slightly over minimum wage, and I thought it was the coolest job ever. I interned there for five summers, admiring the Rotunda and murmur of the Statehouse and felt part of the important things that happened around me. I still geek out about state government and think we should all pay attention to state issues.

How do you handle a stressful situation?

I tell myself that if I want to impact this world, achieve big things and grow to the best version of myself, the cost of entry is discomfort. I’m fortunate to be able to lean on strong women who inspire me. There is no shortage in our community.


Paul Wood is a reporter at The News-Gazette. His email is, and you can follow him on Twitter (@pvawood).