Helping Kids Succeed in School and in Life

2014 Kids' Best Friend Awards Event Honors Tom Miers, Mayor and Mrs. George Pradel, and
Vilma and Bill Paus - the Owners of Braconi's Restaurant

Dr. Mike Litow and his wife, Marva, joined Mayor and Mrs. Pradel, Tom Miers, and Vilma and Bill Paus for this photo of the award recipients of this year's Kids' Best Friend benefit.

The Education Center achieved a significant milestone this year as the organization celebrates its 35th anniversary – with a record of helping thousands of local children successfully overcome obstacles and gain success academically, socially, and within their families. “Our kids may be struggling with a learning disability, the loss of a parent or sibling, or just need a helping hand to get through a difficult situation,” stated Dr. Michael Litow, executive director. “The mission has never changed for The Education Center since its inception in 1979 – that of helping every child succeed in school and in life.” The program consists of a unique “life-coaching” approach, which creates an individual approach for each child enrolled in programming and meets their specific needs.
At this year’s Kids’ Best Friend Benefit and Awards Dinner, The Education Center honored five local leaders who are dedicated to the well-being of children and families. Several of the award winners have been working with youth for more than 40 years.

This year´s awards and winners are:

  • Kids´ Best Friend Award – Tom Miers, President, Naperville Bank and Trust
  • A new award, the George and Pat Pradel Humanitarian Award, has been established – Mayor A. George Pradel and Pat Pradel, his wife, will be honored as the first recipients.
  • Business Leader Award – Bill and Vilma Paus, Braconi’s Restaurant and Pizzeria

Thirty five years ago, Michael Litow, PhD, founded The Education Center of Developmental Resources and became its executive director. True to the principles he teaches regarding personal responsibility and trying to “find a way, not an excuse,” Litow has measured his own success through the positive growth of his students. This highly regarded educator, counselor, and mentor has opened the doors to success for over a thousand young people. He has taken over the problems of troubled youth from throughout the western suburbs and the inner city. He has helped failing students find ways to profit from their strengths. His goal is always “helping students succeed in school and in life.” With each student he counsels, Litow manages to change the world in immeasurable ways.

Litow opened The Education Center in 1979 in response to a discouraging situation. “I was an administrator in the Chicago school district and really felt that dropout rate was too high. I wanted to open a center where I could support students and make a difference,” says Litow. He knew he would be able to relate to struggling teens because he had been there and done that. “I was listed as incorrigible and learning disabled,” he recalls. “But I had some good people in my life who wouldn't give up on me. People who were my cheerleaders in life. I wanted to help kids like those people helped me.”

Litow's clients say he has reached that goal, but he is not a typical youth counselor. Michael Galvin is now an adult with a family but he remembers being a teen in 1987 when his family moved him to Naperville from Milwaukee. “I was trouble,” sums up Galvin. “I was a scared, pissed-off, mixed-up kid who was into drugs. I was shy and I didn't fit in. I was a mess. My parents took me to different places but Mike was different than all of the others. He sat on the couch and listened to me—really listened to me. He didn't give me some of kind of analysis or tell me what to do. Right off the bat, I knew he was on my side. I knew he wanted to help me.” Litow helped Galvin feel better about himself and start setting goals. He helped Galvin land his first job and stayed with him, coaching him on what to do to remain employed.

Litow frequently meets with clients outside of his office. He attends baseball games, acknowledges birthdays, participates in staffings, and becomes a presence in the young lives. Sagar Thakkar was 15 years old when he first walked into The Education Center as a struggling student who skipped out of school frequently. “I went for guidance and counseling for a while but then went to a boarding school for the rest of high school,” recalls Thakkar. “Every single week when I was away at school, I got a letter. It was on yellow paper and I knew it was from Mike. He didn't have to write to me. He wanted to write to me. He was there for me and it made such a difference in my life.”

When asked about the letters faithfully written on a yellow legal pad, Litow simply says, “I have got to do my best with every single one of them. We are talking about a kid's life here. I have got to help them make it happen.”

Litow gives his time to the students but expects them to give him their personal best. “It's not about grades,” says Litow. “I have parents who come to me who are worried about their child's GPA instead of being worried about their child who is depressed, strung out on drugs, and coming apart emotionally. Once we can deal with all those underlying issues, then I ask the kids to compete with themselves, not others. It is all about doing the best you can do.”

The students he has counseled often come back to serve as mentors for others. “I have done some work with boys who are in the same situation that I was in years ago,” says Galvin. “I know what they are going through and want to help them make better decisions than I did.”

Litow says that these testimonials are very effective. “It's not about lecturing or preaching. It is just them telling their story. I sit back and listen and let them talk about the decisions they made, the regrets they have about those decisions, who was affected and how. It is powerful stuff that makes the others think. They start thinking about what they are doing and how they need to change. I empower these kids to take control of their own lives.”

The  mentoring never seems to stop. Galvin and many former students  still have contact with Litow. “About six years ago, I went through a really rough patch,” says Galvin. “I was going through a horrible depression. And then Mike showed up at my door with some food. He wanted to see what was going on and we talked. He helped me check into Linden Oaks and get back in control. His friendship didn't stop after high school. He has been there for me my whole life. I am 44 years old and we are still friends. If it hadn't been for Mike, I would probably be really messed up.”

Thakkar says that when he was looking for a direction for his life, he ran his thoughts by Mike. “He believes in my ideas. I wanted to start a non-profit to help other people and Mike helped connect me to people who could help me make it happen,” says Thakkar. Currently, Thakkar is running Modern Shamans, Inc., a non-profit organization which hands out two to three hundred sandwiches to homeless people in Chicago each week. Each sandwich comes with caring words, just like those life-changing words that Thakkar got each week in the yellow notepad letters.

Litow finds fulfillment in his students' successes. “Success starts when a kid believes in himself,” says Litow. “We are in the 'can do' business at The Education Center. I have learned so much from the kids I have worked with. The transformations I have seen have done my heart good.”

“If it hadn't been for Mike, I am not sure where I would be today,” says Thakkar. “He builds this friendship with everyone that makes you want to pass it on to others.”

There are still many more who need help and Litow is ready to reach out. “Mike just has a way about him,” says Galvin. “His life is all about the people he helps. It is who his is...not a job.”

The Education Center celebrated its 35th anniversary at the Kids’ Best Friend Benefit and Awards Dinner on Friday, October 17th at the Hilton Lisle/Naperville. At the event, awards were given to others in the community who have also made a difference in the lives of area youth.  Tom Miers, president of Naperville Bank and Trust, received the Kids’ Best Friend Award. Bill and Vilma Paus, owners of Braconi’s Restaurant and Pizzeria, were given the Business Leader Award. Mayor and Mrs. George Pradel was  honored with a new award created in their honor – the George and Pat Pradel Humanitarian Award.

Kids´ Best Friend Award
Tom Miers, President, Naperville Bank and Trust

“Our Kids’ Best Friend Award recipient, Tom Miers, has made enormous contributions to our youth through his service on numerous boards and through his support of youth programs as a local bank executive,” said Litow.

Miers, president of Naperville Bank and Trust, has been a respected leader in Naperville since he first moved to Illinois in the early 1970s. His professional and volunteer work has benefited the community greatly, and he has always been especially dedicated to working with – and on behalf of – youth.

He started his youth service work in 1966 with the YMCA in his hometown, Norwich, New York. As a young man who was not as athletic as his brothers, Miers found personal reward at the Y. “I discovered that I enjoyed leading kids,” he explained. “The director encouraged me to become a youth leader, and that was the beginning of a lifetime of work with them.” In 1968, he was elected as the president of the Northeast YMCA Leader’s School that involved 2,000 youth from the Northeast YMCAs. That experience inspired the young man to attend George Williams College (from 1969-1974) to pursue a YMCA career. George Williams was the founder of the YMCA in London during the mid 1880s.

In 1971, Miers started working at the Naperville YMCA as a youth program director coaching swimming, leading YMCA Indian guides and princesses, Leaders Club, and a very successful Friday night program for junior high kids called Jr. Hi Jinx. After graduating from George Williams College, he was appointed senior program director for the Naperville YMCA.

Tom joined the Naperville Jaycees as a young community leader, and has been associated with the organization for more than 35 years. He became President in 1981, and was named the first Last Fling chairman the same year, when the organization assume responsibility for  the event from the Chamber of Commerce.

Ken Koranda, former president of MidAmerica Bank, witnessed Miers’s interest in the community and his willingness to become involved with local organizations. In 1979, Koranda recruited Tom to manage the MidAmerica Bank’s Naperville location.

Within three years, Miers was a board member of the Naperville YMCA and became board president in 1987. A year later, he became chairman of the campaign to build the Fry YMCA on 95th street. He served on the board from 1982-1991, 1993-1996, and 2007-2011. Always dedicated to working with youth and believing in the YMCA, he was elected to the YMCA of the Rockies Board of Directors in 2003 and continues to serve.

Reflecting his growing role in the business community, in 1985 Miers was elected president of the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce and served on the board for two terms from 1983-1990. He was reappointed to the board in 2011 and will serve until December 2014.

Miers was also a founding member of several important foundations and organizations. He helped found the Edward Hospital Foundation, serving from 1987 until 1997. In 1988, he worked with others to create the Indian Prairie Educational Foundation, serving until 1998. During that time, MidAmerica Bank established a branch teaching office at Waubonsie Valley High School to serve as a real-time learning experience for high school students. It was the first of its kind in the Midwest and won numerous awards.

He was also a founding member of the Sunrise Rotary Club and is currently serving as a board member.

One of Tom’s most memorable honors occurred in 1996 when he was elected to carry the Olympic Torch for a one mile stretch in Chicago. He was nominated and selected for his community involvement.

Miers enjoyed a brief retirement after MidAmerica Bank was sold, and he and his family spent much of their time in Colorado – not far from the YMCA of the Rockies. However, a yearning for Naperville and the magnet of community involvement tempted him home again. He accepted a position as president of Naperville Bank and Trust and helped to open its three offices in town. Fulfilling its role as a community bank under Tom’s leadership, this respected financial institution is sponsoring many local events, such as Ribfest and Special Talents America, and its employees are volunteering their time for important causes.

In 2012, Miers was appointed to the Naperville Fair Housing Commission and currently serves as chairman.  In 2013, he was elected to the Naperville Development Partnership Board. He was recently appointed to the Executive Committee and Board of the YMCA of Metro Chicago, which oversees 37 YMCAs and 6 camps.

Tom’s family is an important part of his life. He and his wife, Pati, have raised their four children here – Jennifer, Sarah, Becky, and Jonathan.

According to Tom, “I have always enjoyed community involvement and playing a leadership role. I am so grateful to the Y. That’s why I am where I am, both with my family and professionally.”

George and Pat Pradel Humanitarian Award
Mayor A. George Pradel and Pat Pradel

“Everyone in town knows how dedicated George and Pat Pradel have always been to families and children. We really wanted to honor both of them for the commitment and caring they have shown to youth throughout the 54 years of their marriage. In addition to raising their own children, they were foster parents to three teenagers. George worked with kids as Officer Friendly and helped to create Safety Town, and they have supported families and children in every way they could – as private citizens and as Naperville’s mayor and first lady. While their family prepares for the mayor’s retirement early next year, we wanted to honor both George and Pat with this Humanitarian Award named in their honor.”

George Pradel has always had a soft spot in is heart for children. As a child growing up in Naperville, his goal was to become the director of an orphanage.  He and his family spent time volunteering at an orphanage in Lisle.  As the oldest of six children, he explained, “I wanted to share the love that my mom and dad showed me.” 

Instead, he became a United States Marine, met and married a beautiful young woman named Pat, and together they became parents of three children – George, Carol and Gary. Then, in 1966, George Pradel was chosen to become a Naperville police officer. 

Soon after he completed basic training, he asked the police chief if the department had any educational programs for kids. Offering to take the midnight shift so he could go to schools during the day, Juvenile Officer Pradel began to teach schoolchildren about drugs, “stranger danger,” and safety. The children nicknamed him “Officer Friendly.”

As a juvenile officer, Pradel befriended many youth. He and Pat took in three teenage foster children over a period of time. According to George Pradel, “Being foster parents really fulfilled my goal. I got my childhood wish because Pat joined me in taking the children into our home and giving them love.”

In 1977, the city started Safety Town, and Mayor Rybicki named George Pradel to be its first teacher. Eventually, community volunteers raised money to create a permanent home for Safety Town on Aurora Avenue.

Sergeant Pradel became a watch commander, lieutenant, and then a detective. When he decided to retire, groups in Naperville asked him to run for mayor. The rest is history. He won overwhelmingly in his first election and was unchallenged in his next two mayoral elections. He has served as mayor of Naperville successfully and energetically for 19 years. Under his guidance, Naperville has won many awards and received national and international acclaim. 

The mayor, with the support of Pat, continues to devote much of his time to help organizations that strengthen children and families. He reads to children in the elementary schools, participates in events through DuPage Children’s Museum, Little Friends, Turning Pointe Autism Foundation, Our Children’s Homestead, the YMCA, Safety Town, Boy Scouts, Samaritan Interfaith, and other groups. During the holidays, Mayor Pradel is widely seen as Santa’s “helper” and is actively involved in Toys for Tots.

Devoted to his family, George Pradel sincerely admits that he couldn’t have served the community as he did without the support – and sacrifices – of his wife and children. Pat Pradel has always been at his side, or waiting patiently at home, while he has given his time and energies to help others and to make Naperville an exceptional place to live, work, and raise a family.

Business Leader Award
Bill and Vilma Paus, Braconi’s Restaurant and Pizzeria

Bill and Vilma Paus, owners of Braconi’s Restaurant and Pizzeria, will receive the 2014 Business Leader Award. Since they first opened their restaurant in 2005, giving back to the community and supporting its youth have been guiding principles of their family business. They have donated free pizzas to school and nonprofit events, sponsored numerous organizational and educational fund-raisers, purchased ads in programs, created and hosted unique fund-raisers (such as the Paul Salley Memorial Ride on behalf of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital), and actively participated in community events such as Soup’s On (benefiting Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry, Hesed House, and DuPage PADS) and Rockin’ for the Troops at Cantigny (for Operation Support Our Troops – America).

According to Litow, “We are proud to honor Bill and Vilma Paus, who included service to the community as part of their business plan. They provide wonderful examples of the ways small businesses can support our youth and positively impact our community.”

More Information:

With a 97 percent success rate of graduating children who are facing a wide variety of issues that are keeping them from achieving success, The Education Center offers area families a place of hope and help. The annual Kids’ Best Friend benefit directly supports the many programs of The Education Center.

For more information about The Education Center, please contact the center at 630-420-7807.  The Education Center is located at 113 East Van Buren in Naperville.