Thirty-four years ago, Neil Fanelli was working as an accounting manager for an insurance company when his good friend from West Chester Henderson High School, John Kistler, suggested he look into working with him at Church Farm School.
Fanelli had grown up just a couple of miles from Church Farm School, and was well aware of it.
“I understood that the transition from the corporate world to a nonprofit world would be challenging, but I’m very happy I made the decision to commit to CFS,” he said. “Since our first meeting, I truly admired the school’s headmaster and founder’s son, Dr. Charles Wesley Shreiner Jr. He made my decision easy.”
Fast-forward a few decades, and Fanelli, the school’s Director of Finance and Operations, is now planning to retire from CFS in August 2018.
“It was always a personal goal to begin my retirement chapter by age 62,” he said.
The fact that he’ll retire during the school’s centennial year — an event Fanelli is eager to contribute to — makes it even more special. The school’s first major fundraising event, the CFS Golf Classic, is one that Fanelli founded 16 years ago when he saw the need to recognize and engage the school’s corporate friends in the mission.
This year’s event will be held on Friday, Sept. 29 at the Coatesville Country Club, and Fanelli will be recognized for his service.
When Fanelli joined CFS in 1984, he was surprised by how much he enjoyed not only the school’s mission of providing a financially accessible education to underserved young men, but tackling the many challenges inherent with the unique business model.
“Guided by the leadership of Terry Shreiner (the school’s third headmaster and the founder’s grandson), we accomplished many new and innovative business strategies and projects,” Fanelli said. “I was indirectly involved with the plans to sell off our land to financially support the future of CFS.”
At its height, CFS comprised more than 1,700 acres devoted to raising cows, pigs, chickens, and other farm animals, as well as growing vegetables. The students were charged with working the farm each day until lunch, before attending classes and athletics.
By 2001, the school officially sold all but 150 acres to Chester County, West Whiteland Township, and a few real estate developers. (Farming was phased out in the early 1980s.) More than 700 acres of former CFS land is now utilized as open space in the form of Exton Park.
“Our Board of Directors did an excellent job coming up with a project acceptable to the public and sensitive to community needs,” Fanelli said.
In turn, the school was able to create a sizable endowment that helps to sustain the mission.
“The timing of the conversion of our land to an endowment portfolio was quite fortunate,” Fanelli said. “Capital markets were strong and real estate values were high at the time.”
Other projects Fanelli has spearheaded during his tenure include the design and construction of a campus-wide network and implementation of administrative support software system in the early 1990s. This conversion from manual systems to state-of-the-art electronic technologies transformed the boarding-day campus into a modern “connected learning community” before networked resources came into fashion.
“My hope was that we would become a thought leader in the use of instructional technology and portable computing, resulting in greater awareness of the school and its incredible mission,” Fanelli said.
The Golf Classic was created in 2002 as an effort to build on a need for community awareness and support and to publicly recognize the many corporate friends supporting the mission.
“Everyone participating in the Classic is a winner,” said Fanelli. “There was a great feel of fun and celebration of a very worthy cause at the first event. The Classic has become one of the school’s signature fundraisers, along with its spring Gala.”
When The Reverend Edmund Sherrill came aboard as Head of School in 2009, he had a deep interest in conservation and reconnecting Church Farm School with its land. At a conference in Boston, Fanelli discussed solar energy with some peers. In 2011, he led the school’s efforts to pursue energy conservation and a leadership role in environmentally sustainable programs by engaging PAISBOA (Philadelphia Area Independent School Business Officers Association) members/partners to assist with the construction of a five-acre solar farm on the campus.
The solar farm continues to power more than 90 percent of CFS’s energy needs with cheaper, cleaner energy.
As he prepares to leave CFS after more than three decades, Fanelli says he feels strongly that the school is in a great position for expanding its program and impact. That he contributed as a supporting resource to the school’s many young men is a source of great pride.
“The satisfaction of contributing to the mission, even in an indirect way, has been incredible beyond words,” said Fanelli. “I’ll miss it immensely.”