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Croatians doing good in communities ​abroad: Ines & Ivan Kutlesa in America

Ivan and Ines Kutlesa

17 DECEMBER 2018 – In this feature, we share stories of Croatians doing good things in different fields in communities around the world. 

Today we meet Ines Kutlesa who is the Chief Executive Officer at a social services organisation in the Chicago-land area in the United States, and her husband Ivan, who is the founder and President of his architect firm.  

Both Ines and Ivan were born in the U.S. to Croatian parents and hold dual American and Croatian citizenship.  

Ines, who has an MA degree in clinical psychology and is a licensed counselor and practitioner of healing arts, credits her upbringing in driving her pursuit of advancing the status of women and girls and of what is right and just. 

Ines & Ivan with Ines’s parents Divna & Zeljko Matijas at Guardian Angel’s induction into Project Acclaims Hall of Pride -Joliet Hall of Fame

“My upbringing in a strong and loving Croatian family, coupled with a fantastic education and wonderful mentors, shaped my life, prepared me for future academic and professional achievements, and fueled my ambition to strive for the best to continually evolve as a professional,” Ines says, before adding. 

Ines & Ivan Kutlesa Dubrovnik

“I spent many beautiful summers in Croatia throughout my youth. My Croatian parents instilled in us great pride and love for country, which is why they made sure that my sister and I spent a lot of time there to submerge ourselves in the culture. They taught us the Croatian language & Croatia’s history. My sister, Diana Matijas Vengar moved to Croatia in 1995 and is married to Vedran Vengar, who she met a year after her arrival there. They enjoy their life in Croatia and we are so happy when we are able to be with them and our many other relatives in our beautiful homeland.”

Ines’ sister & brother In-law Diana Matijas-Vengar & Vedran Vengar

Ines first started working at the Guardian Angel Community Services (GACS) in 1999 and over the last 19 years, she has been promoted 6 times. In 2012, after a nationwide search yielding hundreds of applicants, and at the young age of 39, Ines was appointed as Chief Executive Officer. 

“While all of my positions at Guardian Angel have been in leadership and clinical operations, to actually, officially be at the helm has been truly exceptional. Women are vastly underrepresented in leadership roles in both the for-profit and not for profit sectors, which made this achievement all the more special. I knew that to impact positive change for women, fundamentally our society needed to change, and I wanted to be part of that movement.

We know that a vast majority of victims of domestic and sexual violence are women, from all walks of life. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, victims lose a total of 8 million days of paid work each year, and between 21% and 60% of victims lose their jobs due to domestic violence. From 2003 to 2008, 142 women, were murdered in their workplace by former/current intimate partners.

How can we advance the status of women when the fundamental basic human rights of women are being violated in such tragic, astounding proportions, and not just in the United States, but worldwide? I knew I was in the right place to do as much as I could and to offer as much as possible to survivors so that they could get their lives back,” Ines explains. 

Prior to being appointed Chief Executive Officer by Guardian Angel’s Board of Directors, Ines held other leadership positions at Guardian Angel, including Chief Operating Officer, Senior Program Director, Director of Clinical Services and Quality Assurance, Training, and Child Welfare, Director of Community Based Programs, and Director of the Groundwork Domestic Violence Program. 

Ines with her sister Diana in Pula

“By securing millions of dollars my team and I have expanded services by over 70%, even during the economic recession. We’ve seen a staggering increase in requests for help from victims of domestic and dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. Over the last 10 years our emergency domestic violence hotline calls have increased by 141% and since the year 2000, we’ve experienced a 297% increase in the number of emergency shelter nights provided, from 3,230 nights to 12,830.

Our emergency shelter is frequently at or beyond capacity, so I made it our mission to expand services and for the first time in over 30 years, we did just that. The critical need for safety particularly for women and children is why I have dedicated most of my adult life to this worthy cause. We needed to do more, to help more people,” says Ines. 

Ines has also worked on international projects in the areas of genocide, war trauma and violence against women. In October of 2014, Ines was invited by the Embassy of the United States of America in Zagreb, Croatia to provide 8 hour workshops on “The American Perspective on Violence Against Women” to social service NGOs in Split that deal with violence against women issues. 

Ines with her cousin Sanda Pecenik & friend Zdravka Kapetanovic in Split

She also met with government officials who address these matters in Croatia. 

“I spoke on the history and politics of violence against women, origins of privilege, oppression and the objectification of women, as a culture the societal messages we are receiving that negatively influence the advancement of women in power, global implications of domestic violence legislation, and advocacy for human rights, justice and the law.

This was a huge opportunity and honor to proudly represent women, my organization and community on this international project, and to help give a global voice to those who have been silenced at the hands of violence.”

Ines with her 2018 Woman of Distinction Award

As a graduate student, Ines combined her psychological training, bilingualism in the Croatian language, love for Croatia as a 1st generation Croatian-American, and outrage about the war, and worked/interned as a Research Consultant with the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Psychiatry Department on another international project. 

This was done along with the University of Zagreb, Croatia and University of Sarajevo, Bosnia Hercegovina following the war that occurred in the 1990s. 

Ines & Ivan with Illinois State Representative Natalie Manley, Ivan’s mother Jela Kutlesa & Ines’s Parents Divna & Zeljko Matijas

“We surveyed adult and teen survivors of the war, and some participants engaged in Testimony Psychotherapy that suggested bearing witness to one’s traumatic events by listening to their experiences and documenting their stories, that is –assigning logical words to horrific tragedies as a way to gain control over the intrusive memories, could reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

Afterward, I presented research findings at the International Society for Post-Traumatic Stress Studies Conference on Adolescent Survivors of Human Rights Violations in Montreal, Canada.”

Ines has also been active locally, coordinating discussions on essential legislation regarding the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. 

“I was able to arrange for Congresswoman Judy Biggert to come to Guardian Angel to host a roundtable discussion on the law and areas of strength and weakness in the legislation, making recommendations for improvement. It has also been an honor to work with Illinois State Representative Natalie Manley, serving on her Women’s Legislative Advisory Committees for the last 5 years.

Ines & Ivan with friends & colleagues at Guardian Angel’s Annual Dancing With Our Local Stars Fundraising Gala

I contributed early on by writing our mission statement and these words have been the catalyst for the direction that our group has decided to focus its energy: “We convene for the regard, equality and advancement of women’s issues that affect positive change in our community.”  I also created our tagline “Operation WIN: Women in Numbers.” 

In October of 2018, Ines was presented with the 2018 Woman of Distinction Award, for leading a team that helps survivors of domestic violence, serves at-risk families and provides educational programming aimed at changing violent and abusive behavior. 

While the majority of funding comes from the state, and donations, Ines was proud to secure her organisations’ first ever federal funding award of over ½ a million dollars to open a new transitional housing program, Suzy’s Caring Place, that is still going strong nearly 10 years later. 

It is not only in the areas of domestic and sexual violence that Ines has worked. 

“We reached over 60,000 people last year in foster care, adult protective services, education-based programming for the prevention of child abuse and neglect, and work with perpetrators of domestic violence, in addition to the programs that help survivors.

Recently, we relocated our organization and while proudly spearheading this massive feat, I also had the pleasure of working with my husband, Ivan Kutlesa, President of Kutlesa Hernandez Architects, who donated over $30,000 of architectural services to Guardian Angel resulting in the conceptualization and design of the floor plans and hundreds of hours of work in the field, including on-call services for an entire year whenever issues arose, in support of our relocation. As a result, we expanded emergency shelter services by 50%,” said Ines. 


Awards and recognition which Ines has received include: 

She Rocks It Award: Celebrating Services that Empower Women

Woman of Distinction Award by Illinois State Representative Natalie Manley

Chicago-land Speedway NASCAR Everyday Hero Award and Grand Marshall at Monster Energy NASCAR CUP Series Playoffs: Tales of the Turtles 400

University of St. Francis Honorary Induction Into the Social-Work Club & Phi Alpha Honor Society Community Service Award for New Programming in the Area of Domestic Violence

United States Achievement Academy: National Award Winner, Who is Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges, College of Sciences Dean’s List: Outstanding Academic Achievement Award and National Honor Society in Psychology: Psi Chi.

Her organisation Guardian Angel was named Outstanding Agency in Human Services and has earned many additional accolades over the years.

Ines, a big tennis fan, with Roger Federer

Both of Ivan’s parents are Croatian from villages around Tomislavgrad in Bosnia and Herzegovina. More specifically the Busko Jezero area. 

“Mom is from the village of Raseljke and Dad is from the village of Prisoje. I was born in Chicago along with my brother, retired US Navy Commander Jure Kutlesa, who in 2014 received the Order of Hrvatski Pleter from President Ivo Josipovic. We are also cousins with the current Archbishop of Porec/Pula Drazen Kutlesa (same village, Prisoje) who is rumored to become the new Archbishop of Zagreb and head of the Church in Croatia,” says Ivan. 

Ivan and Ines in Dubrovnik

Ivan has been practicing architecture since 1992 in the United States and Europe since obtaining a Bachelors of Architecture in Design from the University of Illinois at Chicago. In 2001 he became CEO and founder of Kutlesa-Hernandez Architects in Chicago Illinois which he founded with his  classmate from Architecture School, Manuel Hernandez.

He has worked on a number of projects, including pro-bono design work for the Croatian Franciscan Custody of the Holy Family at their Residences on Drexel Blvd. in Chicago.

Croatian Franciscans St. Francis Grotto

The design of 3 rooftop bleacher projects for the 2016 World Champion Chicago Cubs Baseball team, a $10 million.

Cubs rooftop bleacher project

A 7-story residential building in Chicago’s “southloop” neighborhood.

7-story residential building in Chicago

And the design of R&B singer R. Kelly’s house in south suburban Chicago. 

R. Kelly’s home Ivan designed

Ivan also helped to finance and build a monument to all those who gave their lives for Croatia in his father’s village of Prisoje, Bosnia and Herzegovina and worked with a client to design preliminary concepts for a new 30 story commercial high-rise in Zagreb, Croatia. If built, it would become the tallest building in Croatia. 

Zagreb Tower sketch

Ivan is also the co-founder of the Velika Gospa Charity golf outing that has raised over $200,000.00 USD over the past 15 years. This money has gone to various children’s causes in Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina.

At the monument in Prisoje with Bishop Drazen Kutlesa

He is also a member of the Association of Croatian American Professionals, National and local Chicago Chapter.

If you have a similar story or know any Croatians (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th…generation) doing good in the community where you are and would like to share then please get in touch by email: [email protected] 

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