‘It’s very humbling.’ Downers Grove resident honored by alma mater

Kristen Kierulf Mighty of Downers Grove is a Nazareth Academy graduate and the executive director at the Quinn Center of St. Eulalia in Maywood.

When Nazareth Academy alumna Kristen Kierulf Mighty got word she will be honored next month as one of the La Grange Park High School’s Four Pillars Award recipients, she had two reactions.

“One was complete shock,” the Downers Grove resident said. “The next was, ‘Who did it?’ ”

According to the school, the awards acknowledge and honor alumni and friends who are thriving in their communities or careers and continue to represent Nazareth’s four pillars of Scholarship, Service, Spirit and Unity. An award is given out for each pillar.

Mighty, a 2000 Nazareth graduate, is still stumped on who nominated her for the Service Award.

“But it’s very humbling. I don’t do the work that I do to be recognized. I’m honored to be thought of in that kind of way,” she said.

Since 2018, Mighty has served as the executive director at the Quinn Center of St. Eulalia. Headquartered in Maywood, the community-driven organization was launched in 2010 to address social justice concerns and outreach to a diverse community.

Her path to the Quinn Center has been anything but conventional.

“I definitely didn’t grow up as a little kid dreaming to be an executive director of a nonprofit because I didn’t even know that existed,” Mighty said.

It was the death of her mother from cancer at a young age that propelled Mighty initially into the field of science.

“From a public health aspect I wanted to know what is this cancer stuff and what’s the way to fix it?” she said.

In high school, Mighty said she “completely geeked it out with all of the nerdy classes I could get.”

“I’m first-generation here – my family was all born in the Philippines – and I’m from a low-income family, so I had to figure out how to get to college to do the things I wanted to do,” she said.

Following her graduation from Nazareth Academy, she went on to receive bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and microbiology from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 2005. Mighty continued her education with a doctoral degree in life sciences and a master’s degree in public health from Northwestern University. After completing her postdoctoral studies at Rush University in the immunology-microbiology department, she moved into an administrative role in postdoctoral affairs at Northwestern University.

She’s grateful for the help she received from a Nazareth Academy counselor in navigating the college application process.

“There has always been this foundation of wanting to give back to the community because the community helped us so much as we grew up in Broadview,” Mighty said. “After going through my postdoc, I started thinking, ‘What can I do to make a difference now?’ A core value for me is social impact, so I did some networking and found out about the role [at Quinn Center] right here in my backyard.

“I never even knew it existed or if they would want to take a risk on someone with no nonprofit background,” she said. “But for four years I’ve been here and I’ve been able to use all the tools I learned through the process – public health, management, collaborations – to be able to grow our funding position and donor engagement and develop programming.”

Mighty has been able to partner with her alma mater by having Nazareth Academy staff and students work with a master gardener through the University of Illinois Extension to help maintain the Quinn Center’s community garden. The fresh produce from the garden is shared with soup kitchen and food pantry guests as well as Quinn Center of St. Eulalia participants and volunteers.

Mighty credits her supervisor from her administrative role at Northwestern University who challenged and supported her while also pushing her to develop leadership skills.

“She gave me the green light to think outside the box. … You don’t have to use a Ph.D. in science for science. I have definitely been able to use all of that education and experience here in a small nonprofit and recognize a lot of our small nonprofits in the community sometimes don’t thrive because the basic infrastructure isn’t there. We can impact more families by continuing to try and serve more and better.”

Nazareth Academy’s celebration of its Four Pillars Awards, Athletic Hall of Fame and Fine Arts Hall of Fame is set for 10 a.m. April 3. The Mass and honors will take place in the Alexine Chapel on campus, with the reception to follow in Nazareth’s Rooney Student Center.

“It is with great pride that we lift up these amazing people who continue to embody the very essence of our mission,” Nazareth President Deborah Tracy said. “Years and often generations beyond their time gracing our halls, they remain steadfast in creating a legacy of making our world a better place. We congratulate this year’s outstanding recipients and express our gratitude for being such wonderful role models for us all.”