Among the 40 Under 40

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Clinical director at nonprofit recognized by Connecticut Magazine

Guardian Ad Litem Services Clinical Director Sara Valentino was named one of Connecticut Magazine’s 2015 40 Under 40, an annual list of the 40 most influential Connecticut residents under 40 years old. Valentino co-founded the Naugatuck-based nonprofit organization in 2002. –LUKE MARSHALL
Guardian Ad Litem Services Clinical Director Sara Valentino was named one of Connecticut Magazine’s 2015 40 Under 40, an annual list of the 40 most influential Connecticut residents under 40 years old. Valentino co-founded the Naugatuck-based nonprofit organization in 2002. –LUKE MARSHALL

NAUGATUCK — Each year, Connecticut Magazine honors the best of the best of a new generation in its 40 leaders under the age of 40 feature. One of this year’s honorees can be found hard at work at a borough-based nonprofit organization.

Sara Valentino, 38, of Seymour, was named to the magazine’s annual 40 Under 40 list and will be featured in Connecticut Magazine’s February issue.

Valentino, a Beacon Falls native and a 1995 graduate of Naugatuck High School, was recognized for the work she has done with Guardian Ad Litem Services, a nonprofit organization with offices on Church Street. Guardian Ad Litem Services works to improve the lives of people living with mental illness throughout the state.

Valentino, who currently serves as the clinical director at Guardian Ad Litem Services, co-founded the organization with attorney Michael Mackniak in 2002.

“The work that we do here at Guardian Ad Litem Services is social work in its truest form and that’s what I went to school for,” Valentino said. “Social work is really about trying to help people improve their lives and that is really our mission here — helping people get the services they need and helping them to have the life that they want.”

Valentino interned for Mackniak while she was earning her graduate degree in social work from Columbia University in New York, N.Y. A year after she graduated Mackniak offered her a position with the nonprofit organization he was starting.

“Michael and I started with just him and I. We started with just a grassroots pilot program. From 2002, where it was just the two of us, we have grown into an agency that now covers most of the state,” Valentino said.

The agency now has 10 social workers and two managers. When it started it 2002, Guardian Ad Litem Services served about a dozen clients. Now, the organization has the capacity to serve 250 clients.

“So, we’ve gone from this grassroots agency of two, to this larger agency that has a pretty big presence in that state,” Valentino said.

Valentino currently leads Guardian Ad Litem Services’ flagship program Melissa’s Project, which was named after one of her first clients. Melissa’s Project helps individuals with severe and chronic mental illnesses to live independently in the community.

It was her work with Melissa’s Project that caught the attention of the editors of Connecticut Magazine and landed her a spot on the 40 Under 40 list, which recognizes individuals for their career achievements and community contributions.

“I’m really humbled by that. I feel like in social work you do the work because you care — you care about the clients, you care about the vision, you care about the mission. It’s not often you really get recognized for the work you do in social work. So, to get this kind of recognition is neat. It’s definitely humbling,” Valentino said.

Though she is proud of being on the list, Valentino sees the recognition as a reflection of the work Guardian Ad Litem Services is doing around the state.

“I think it means, at Guardian, we are doing something special, that we are doing something unique, and something that is worthwhile. I don’t think they would have chosen me if we weren’t. The nomination was largely based on the work I do here. It makes me feel proud of the work Michael and I have done,” Valentino said.

Valentino said one of the reasons she chose to get involved with Guardian Ad Litem Services, and social work in general, is because she always felt drawn to help people.

“Social work has always felt like a very natural profession to me. I was just drawn to it. I’m very passionate about it. I really like the idea that people can grow and change, and I can be part of that process to help them grow and change,” Valentino said.

Valentino plans to continue to her work, helping the people of Connecticut.

“I love this job, I love this agency, and I love this population. I can see myself continuing to grow the agency with Michael,” Valentino said.