In 1986, Shelly Yanoff accepted a job as executive director of what was then called Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth. She thought she would stay a few months at the organization so tiny the only employees were Yanoff and a secretary.

Plans changed.

Yanoff announced Tuesday that she is stepping down after 25 years as the leader of what is now known as Public Citizens for Children and Youth, an advocacy and community education nonprofit that now has 14 employees and an annual budget of about $1.3 million.

It's not an overstatement to say that Yanoff is an institution, one of the staunchest advocates for children the city has ever seen.

"She is our champion fighter for kids," said Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown.

"She has an extreme reservoir of energy and optimism and puts that to work at the city and state level in a way that no one else is doing," said Donna Cooper, a top aide to former Gov. Ed Rendell. "Everybody knows her. You don't have to say, 'Shelly who?' "

On Yanoff's watch, PCCY awoke the region to the plight of homeless children; launched a project to protect children from lead poisoning; pushed full-day kindergarten and robust early childhood education in Philadelphia and statewide; advocated for equitable public school funding; started programs securing free eye and dental care for children; and helped establish the statewide Children's Health Insurance Program, which provides coverage for more than 100,000 children annually.

Behind it all was the tireless work of Yanoff, 73, a Germantown High graduate who first dipped a toe into public advocacy as a young mother in the 1960s protesting planned cuts to Head Start programs.

She led a recall effort against then-Mayor Frank Rizzo that was so controversial she received threats - those angry with her efforts warned they would firebomb her home.

After her children were born, Yanoff finished college and law school - at the University of Pennsylvania and Villanova, respectively - and went to work for the Public Interest Law Center and Americans for Democratic Action. She also spent time as a policy officer in the administration of Mayor W. Wilson Goode and as an assistant city solicitor.

What motivates her?

"I believe strongly that all kids are our kids," Yanoff, the daughter of a barber who emigrated from Latvia, said in an interview Tuesday. "That democracy is not a spectator sport. That people have to be engaged and care enough to tell their elected representatives to do something better."

She has done exactly that - passionately, sometimes in a loud voice, but always politely.

"Shelly has a way about her of being warm and engaging. She's not in it for the fight. She's in it for the kids. On every hot-button issue, people wanted her to be on their side," said Cooper, who now works for the nonprofit Center for American Progress in Washington.

Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter's chief education officer, hailed Yanoff as "an amazing education advocate," someone who constantly thinks of the profound effect that public policy made very far away from children can have on their lives.

"She is an advocate who has a strong point of view, but she is also a realist who understands that there are always things you have to negotiate to get things done," Shorr said. "She didn't alienate a lot of people. She understood how to work the legislature and the Council. She is dogged."

Reynolds Brown has worked with Yanoff for the last 12 years on issues ranging from lead paint to preserving the arts in public schools.

"She did not let you off the hook," Reynolds Brown said. "She backed up her advocacy with strong, undeniable stats. The facts are the facts - you can spin them any way you want, but the facts are the facts."

Yanoff - who has won multiple awards for her advocacy and was most recently awarded an honorary degree at Arcadia University - has the ability to bring people from different backgrounds together, said Reynolds Brown.

"It's a terrific skill set, and not everyone has it. And it's powerful when it's used for the right reasons," the councilwoman said.

Frank Cervone, director of Philadelphia's Support Center for Child Advocates, has known Yanoff for decades.

"When I get distracted by politics and by trade-offs, Shelly calls me back to what's important. Questions like: What are we spending our money on as a community? What are our priorities? She's got that kind of shake-you-at-the-shoulders wake-up call," Cervone said.

When it comes to full-day kindergarten and quality child care for Philadelphia's children, "her fingerprints are all over them," Cervone said. "Lots of people were involved in both of those, but I don't see either of them getting to where they are today without her drive and vision."

PCCY is at the beginning of planning its next three years, and Yanoff said she felt it was the right time to go. She will stay until her replacement is selected by the board of directors, and beyond that, expects to "always remain an advocate for kids, an advocate for PCCY."

Leading the organization "has been a joy," and she will miss it, Yanoff said. It's been hard work, from showing up at homeless shelters at 6:30 a.m. to see what kind of breakfast kids were eating to leading thousands of people to Washington and Harrisburg to rally for changes to child welfare policies.

She didn't always win, Yanoff said, but she always tried to find some victory for the region's young people.

Yanoff was one of a group of people opposed to public financing for sports stadiums in the mid-2000s, but at some point, it became clear that was a losing battle.

Yanoff, Reynolds Brown, and others ended up obligating the Phillies and the Eagles, over the next 30 years, to give $60 million to improve the city's programs for children.

"It's not enough, but it's a start. In 25 years, a lot of things are better," said Yanoff, who lives in Mount Airy with her husband, Gerry Kaufman. She has three children, two stepchildren, and five grandchildren.

Still, Yanoff worries - about income segregation, about school funding, about people saying class size doesn't matter.

"Unless we really all commit that we can be a community that cares about its schools and its kids, then we are not going to win," said Yanoff. "Disappointed kids grow up into disappointed adults, and that costs us enormously."

Yanoff often cites one of her favorite quotes, from Albert Camus: "In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me lay an invincible summer."

Her friend Loraine Ballard Morrill, director of community affairs for Clear Channel Radio, believes that sums Yanoff up perfectly.

"In the face of what at times must seem to be insurmountable obstacles, Shelly Yanoff has held fast to the notion that we can and must do better for our children," Morrill said.

Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com or on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.