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Cella bids farewell to her life's work

After 30 years at Wellness House, former intern is ready for next chapter of her life


Last updated 12/23/2019 at 3:40pm | View PDF

Jim Slonoff

Jeannie Cella is spending the final days of 2019 cleaning up her computer files ("Get rid of your drafts!" she advised) and preparing for her new life after working for almost three decades at Wellness House. "I know that I am one of the luckiest people to have a career for 30 years that has been inspiring to me," she said.

August 2020 will mark the 30th anniversary of Jeannie Cella's first day at Wellness House. But she won't be there to celebrate it.

Cella announced in January that she would retire at the end of this year. She said she wants to leave while she still is passionate about the work she has been doing since she joined the staff as a student intern in 1990.

"I love Monday mornings. That is so true," she said. "I think that is one of the things I'm worried about. I have to find a Monday morning that I love."

She's not sure what her future holds, but she isn't interested in full-time work or supervising others. Nor does she want her 30 years of experience and skills in running a nonprofit, fundraising and board development to sit idle.

"Ideally, what I would like to do is help other people know what I know - whether that is mentoring, coaching, doing project work for a nonprofit," she said. "The bottom line is such that I've got something to offer just because of that life experience."

Cella will launch her retirement with a two-week trip to Maui next month with her husband of 46 years, Paul, who retired in February. The two raised four children and now have eight grandchildren ranging in age from 4 to 13.

"My kids and my grandkids, they will definitely play a bigger role in my future because I've been pretty busy these past several years," Cella said. "I want free time for that."

Cella has spent part of the year working with Lisa Kolavennu, who was named the new executive director in May. Cella remembers interviewing Kolavennu in 2007 to help fill the job of program director, a job she herself held until she was promoted to executive director in 2000.

"I just thought she was perfect, and she is perfect," said Cella, who was named president and CEO in 2016. "She was an unbelievably talented program director for 12 years."

The two have been busy preparing for the future and meeting with donors, Cella said.

"I thought that on my way to retirement it would get quieter," she said. "It won't be quiet until Jan. 1."

She credits the Wellness House Board of Directors for planning such a smooth transition and said she's always enjoyed working with the board.

"I've had a phenomenal relationship with my board and they have been phenomenal people," she said.

Cella said she's most proud of the degree to which the organization has remained nimble under her watch, citing the recent expansion of services to 12 locations as an example.

Cella was motivated to work at Wellness House by the experience she had when her mother was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in 1974 and died six months later.

Cella remembers sitting in a folding chair, unable to escape the annoying buzz of the overhead light in the hospital basement, as she waited with her mom and other patients who were in line for chemotherapy. The situation seemed hopeless, she said.

Cancer detection, diagnosis, treatment and prognosis fortunately has changed dramatically since that time.

"It has just totally evolved to a place where there are so many reasons for hope," Cella said. "I don't want to be a Pollyanna. People still die from cancer. (But) there is so much more of what didn't exist at all in the '70s."

Cella personally has grown from a daughter wounded by the loss of her mom to the head of an organization whose mission is to help people living with a cancer diagnosis and their loved ones.

Jeannie Cella said retirement won't keep her away from special events at Wellness House and promised to return for the annual Walk for Wellness in May. (file photo)

She shared a line from a song called "Chances Are" by Five for Fighting, a group that played at a Wellness House gala a few years back. "You gotta cry before you sing," the lyrics state.

Cella sees the truth of that statement in families who rebound from tragic losses. Every deep hurt, every wound, offers an opportunity to do something with it, she said.

"You can make a beautiful song of it," she said.

What a song she has sung.

Author Bio

Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean

Email: [email protected]
Phone: 630-323-4422, ext. 104


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