Mary Anne Ehlert still hears her younger sister Marcia’s laugh, more than 27 years after Marcia— born with an umbilical cord wrapped around her tiny neck, and cerebral palsy—died at the age of 40.
“I wish you could have heard it,” Ehlert says.
She then imitates the preamble of the inimitable laugh, tilting her head back and breaking into a smile.
“Marcia’s laugh … there was nothing else like it,” Ehlert recalls. “It was, without a doubt, infectious.”
So infectious that the CDC looked into adding Marcia’s laugh to its outbreak list but chose not to do so because it had always triggered instant joy from others.
“People look at disabled people and immediately think, ‘Oh, that’s so sad,’” Ehlert says. “But my family (late parents Roy and Helen and Marcia’s five siblings) never felt that way. Marcia was happy and productive. Every life she touched, they’ve never forgotten her.
“Marcia taught me and countless others that caregiving is a noble profession.”
The 72-year-old cracks another smile, this one a Mary Anne Ehlert expression, while sitting in her office at Lincolnshire-based Protected Tomorrows, the organization she launched with its sister company, Ehlert Financial Group, in 1990.
Marcia is on her mind, again.
If it’s a workday, it’s also a Marcia day.
Protected Tomorrows is an advocacy firm with a mission to enhance the lives of individuals with disabilities, including families with a child, spouse, parent, or other loved ones with special needs.
Ehlert Financial Group expanded its original mission—to serve the needs of families looking for overall objective financial planning—to include special needs life-care planning, as well as business planning, wealth strategy, and insurance solutions.
“I founded both, thanks to Marcia,” Ehlert, a Barrington resident since 2014, says. “I’d seen first-hand the difficulties our parents had in making sure Marcia would be cared for when they could no longer do so. I then acted on my lifelong desire to specialize in serving the families of the disabled.
“Marcia had helped me discover that I can make a difference in the lives of others.”
Ehlert aced all of her job tests after completing her studies at Loyola University in 1972, beginning with a stint at A.C. Nielsen in Northbrook. She held posts in banking at Weiland Computer Group, Deutsche Credit Corporation, and Heller Financial and Fuji Bank, before joining Citicorp Distribution Finance in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
“Corporate life didn’t suit me,” Ehlert admits. Especially when Citicorp told her to lay off 85 colleagues and prepare to move to New York.
That was straw No. 200 in a box of 200 straws.
Ehlert exited the banking industry and entered the … Marcia field.
Mary Anne, younger sister Arlene, and Marcia (whose twin is Debbie) were playing under the baby grand piano at home in Des Plaines when Marcia, about 4 years old at the time, suffered her first seizure.
“We didn’t know what to do,” Mary Anne recalls.
Fast forward decades. Mary Anne Ehlert, the professional at Protected Tomorrows, regularly meets vulnerable, anxiety-ridden parents of children with disabilities and often hears, “What should we do?”; “Where do we start?”; or “What’s going to happen when my child turns 18?”
“We,” Ehlert says, “ask two questions: ‘What’s the best thing that could happen for your child?’, and ‘What is your biggest fear?’ Answers I’ve heard to the first question range from, ‘They’ll be happy’ to, ‘They’ll be independent.’ That somebody will take advantage of their disabled child is a big fear.”
Protected Tomorrows, with a resolute workforce of 10, is in the business of abating distress and building solutions by providing paths of success for families—across a wide scale of income levels—through books, webinars, and online tools.
Parents of children with disabilities have attended Ehlert presentations at a number of North Shore schools. She estimates that 400 North Shore families, every five years or so, have sought guidance from Protected Tomorrows.
Ehlert was on a first-name basis with her first two Protected Tomorrows clients, if you consider “Mom” and “Dad” first names.
Roy and Helen each lived to the age of 93. Mary Anne was 40 when she assumed control of caregiving for Marcia, who lived, made friends, engaged in activities, and laughed heartily at the Clearbrook group home in Rolling Meadows for nine years.
“My father had a blue-collar job, with no health insurance,” Ehlert says, adding her parents wanted nothing but the best possible care for Marcia but, like others in their boat, felt rudderless and confused when it came to the daunting task of blueprinting the appropriate steps to a secure future.
“I made a commitment to help more than the wealthy when I created Protected Tomorrows,” says Ehlert, who’s also a partner at Lombard-based Forum Financial Management. “I had to figure out how to help everyone. Planning can be overwhelming, for anyone. Complex, too. Planning involves understanding government benefits, finding the right school system, finding the right residential program.
“We’re here for families that seek a bright future for their loved ones with special needs.”
Ehlert adored math classes and earned “golden girl” status as the top baton twirler at Maine West High School in Des Plaines. Three airborne batons, tossed cumulonimbus high by Ehlert? She’d field them calmly and cleanly.
“I was a shy geek in high school,” Ehlert says.
She was a snow hater one day in high school. Heavy snowfall the night before had forced school officials to cancel Maine West’s classes.
“I was distraught,” Ehlert remembers. “I also didn’t believe it.
“I asked my dad to drive me to the school to prove school wasn’t in session that day.”
A former marathoner—having hit the pavement in forty 26.2-mile tests, including three in Chicago—Ehlert now speed walks and wears out a rowing machine at her home in Barrington, where she lives with her life partner, John.
Among her favorite things to do along the North Shore: dine at Winnetka restaurants Aboyer and Kyoto, check out the annual Port Clinton Art Festival in Highland Park, and take in a Ravinia Festival concert.
But each of the above takes a back seat—no, a trunk seat—to what Ehlert does for a living.
And for Marcia.
“I love what I do,” Ehlert says. “Marcia’s inspiration lives on in the important work that
Protected Tomorrows does. Thousands of families have benefited from our Future Care Plans and other vital services.
“The best thing that could happen? That my sister’s legacy will continue well beyond my lifetime.”
Protected Tomorrows is located at 103 Schelter Road, Suite 10, in Lincolnshire. For more information, call 847-522-8086 or visit protectedtomorrows.com.