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Hellen Antonopoulos, CPS administrator, social worker, ‘champion for our students,’ dead at 48

‘A beautiful soul who had done great work,’ said Maurice Swinney, CPS’s interim chief education officer, who said she was ‘one of the best social workers in the youth guidance space.’

Hellen Antonopoulos, seen here in Mykonos, Greece, loved travel.
Hellen Antonopoulos, seen here in Mykonos, Greece, loved travel.
Provided

A lot of people depended on Hellen Antonopoulos.

“Eleni” was the oldest child in a Greek immigrant family, the one who looked after her little sisters Joanne and Anna, helping them with homework when their parents were working.

She was like a second mother to them. If Joanne had a nightmare, she’d cry out for help by saying, “Eleni!” Even as an adult having a bad dream, she still called for her big sister.

Working in the Chicago Public Schools, Ms. Antonopoulos was someone people went to when they needed to make sure things got done. When Jadine Chou wanted to help students returning to school after being held in the county’s juvenile detention center, she turned to Ms. Antonopoulos, who was executive director of CPS’s Office of Social and Emotional Learning, which looks out for the mental health of an estimated 330,000 students across the system.

“I went to Hellen to help us solve it and create a pilot for this process, and she did,” said Chou, chief of safety and security for CPS. Her work “ensured that everyone supporting the students would understand their role and be accountable.”

That was six years ago, “and, to this day, that is still the process we use across the district,” Chou said. “I could always count on Hellen to be a champion for our students.”

In the first days of the coronavirus pandemic, Ms. Antonopoulos worried about the psychological toll on CPS students.

“She said, ‘I’m so concerned because kids came to school one day, and the next day they weren’t,’ ” said Stephanie Garrity, executive director of the nonprofit Rainbows for All Children, which helps kids dealing with grief and loss. “For some kids, school is their social network and their safe place and the only place they get a hot meal.”

After Garrity spoke with her about the need for training more teachers and social workers to assist bereaved children, she said Ms. Antonopoulos told her: “I’ll do all the legwork. I have somebody in mind that would fund this.”

Five months later, Ms. Antonopoulos called Garrity and told her, “I have amazing news: We can get a grant to train 1,400 teachers and social workers.”

“I almost cried,” Garrity said. “I was so excited. Hellen wasn’t somebody who said, ‘Let’s slap a Band-Aid on it.’ She wanted to make sure kids had the tools they needed to succeed.”

The $140,000 grant from the Children First Fund — a CPS nonprofit that partners with benefactors — “will help close to a million kids over the course of a decade because of these folks who are trained over the course of a year,” Garrity said.

Ms. Antonopoulos died Nov. 24 at 48 at her Northwest Side home. Family members suspect a heart attack caused her death, according to her brother-in-law Fotios Zemenides.

She died a day after burying her mother, Vasiliki, who died of acute myeloid leukemia at 68.

“It was a broken heart,” Zemenides said.

The Children First Fund is establishing a Hellen Antonopoulos Memorial Fund to support mental wellness and scholarships for students interested in service careers.

“She is a beautiful soul who had done great work,” said Maurice Swinney, CPS’s interim chief education officer, who announced the fund at a Chicago Board of Education meeting on Wednesday. “She is known as one of the best social workers in the youth guidance space. I credit her with really thinking about how do we project out what the future should look like for mental health and that we were working on this pre-pandemic.”

Ms. Antonopoulos realized students “need more than a laptop, they need more than Internet access,” Garrity said. “They need somebody to listen to them, to make them feel heard and to understand they’re not the only one feeling like this.”

Hellen Antonopoulos speaking at the National Museum of Mexican Art.
Hellen Antonopoulos speaking at the National Museum of Mexican Art.
Ben McKay

Young Hellen grew up near Harlem Avenue and Irving Park Road. Her father Nikolaos, an immigrant from the village of Doxa in the Peloponnese peninsula, worked as a short-order cook and janitor. Her mother, from the town of Vyziki in the same region of Greece, worked for Motorola, making circuit boards.

She graduated from Dever grade school. Then, at Lane Tech High School, “She got into student government,” Zemenides said. “She decided early on she would find a way into public service. When she was at Loyola University, that’s when she discovered social work.”

She got a bachelor’s degree in social work and two master’s degrees, one in social work and another in children’s law and policy.

“The three girls, they put themselves through school,” Zemenides said. “It was difficult financially. She wanted to make sure she could help people who were less fortunate.”

At CPS, “Sometimes, she was working to 2, 3 in the morning,” her brother-in-law said. “She was fulfilled by her work because she saw the direct results.”

“She had an instinct on when someone was in need of help, a listening ear or a hug,” said Father Tilemahos Alikakos, who helped preside at her funeral.

Ms. Antonopoulos loved to travel. In addition to Greece, she went to China, the Czech Republic, England, France and Spain, where she was bewitched by Barcelona. She bought architectural Lego sets for her eldest nephew, Demetrios, so he could build replicas of the Eiffel Tower and other landmarks she visited.

She and her sisters had a friendly cooking competition over which of them could best duplicate the Greek recipes they’d learned from their mother. One of her specialties was fasolakia, a green bean dish she made with potatoes, carrots, zucchini and tomato sauce, topped with feta cheese.

She loved feta so much, the family joke was: “Do you want a little fasolakia with that feta?”

“She had a way of bringing everybody together through laughter,” said Ron Migalski, a friend and fellow social worker. “And her fasolakia was fantastic. You could never have enough feta — never.”

At her funeral, the prayer card was printed with a verse by Persian poet Omar Khayyam:

“With them the seed of Wisdom did I sow,

And with mine own hand wrought to make it grow;

And this was all the Harvest that I reap’d —

‘I came like Water, and like Wind I go.’ ”

Hellen Antonopoulos (from left) with her mother Vasiliki and sisters Anna Poulakidas and Joanne Zemenides.
Hellen Antonopoulos (from left) with her mother Vasiliki and sisters Anna Poulakidas and Joanne Zemenides.
Provided

Ms. Antonopoulos is survived by her father and sisters Anna Poulakidas and Joanne Zemenides.

She loved to decorate for the holidays, so her family decorated the tree near her grave and her mother’s with Christmas ornaments and lights.

She would always put confetti in the cards she sent to her nieces and nephews. So, when their aunt’s casket was lowered into the ground, they sprinkled it with confetti.