By Meg McSherry Breslin
Chicago Tribune
May 09, 1998 at 12:00 am

As a freshman at Waller High School on Chicago's North Side in the early 1970s, Celeste Pena had a tough time dealing with the race riots and gang activity so prevalent at the time. Finally, she decided she had to do something about it.

Mrs. Pena asked her school counselor what career would be devoted to helping people. Social work was the answer, and it was a career choice that Mrs. Pena never questioned from that moment on.

Following nearly a lifetime devoted to community service agencies all over Chicago, Mrs. Pena died Thursday of breast cancer in her North Side home. She was 41.

Mrs. Pena's most recent position was special assistant to Illinois Department of Children and Family Services Director Jess McDonald. A master's degree graduate of the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago, she had previously been executive director of the Network for Youth Services, branch director of the Centro Nuestro-Chicago Youth Centers, social work instructor at Northeastern Illinois University, director of community affairs for Norwegian American Hospital and a private practice psychotherapist.

Her devotion to youth and families throughout the state was so strong that DCFS held a special reception to honor her last September as it became obvious that her health was rapidly failing. DCFS organizers wanted to "show her how much we love her in life."

At DCFS, Mrs. Pena was responsible for developing the Social Work Education Program, which involved having all DCFS supervisors earn their master's degrees in social work, as part of a new initiative to professionalize and upgrade department standards.

Mrs. Pena, who was herself battling cancer at the time and raising three young children while working toward her doctorate in social work, became a role model, mentor and friend to scores of supervisors going through the program. Her work earned her deep respect from McDonald.

"Celeste Pena was one of the most amazing human beings I have ever known," he said in a statement. "Her remarkable spirit helped change for the better the lives of staff at DCFS and the families they serve."

Mrs. Pena's first experience in social work came while she was a college student studying the field at George Williams College, which is now part of Aurora University. To get experience, she became a short-term missionary in Reynosa, a small Mexican border town, during the summer of 1978. For three months, she was the primary caregiver to 20 children living in a group home, where there was no electricity or running water. To feed her wards, she often had to sneak donated food across the border from Texas.

Mrs. Pena is survived by her husband, Julian; two sons, Julian Alejandro and Mario Andres; a daughter, Celeste Dominique; her mother, Christine Gonzalez; her father, Frank Gambino; two sisters, Juliana Gambino and Kim Gambino; and two brothers, Frank Gambino and Dean Gambino.

Visitation will be held Saturday from 2 to 9 p.m. at Rago Brothers Funeral Homes, 7751 W. Irving Park Rd., Chicago. A memorial eulogy will be held at 6 p.m. Saturday at the funeral home.