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“Paco” proves you can come home again

The real stalwarts of any community are those unsung toilers who do the right thing day in and day out in jobs that most of us take for granted will get done.  Francisco “Paco” Fuentes is a laborer in the youth services field in my hometown of Omaha and in an era when parents entrust more and more of their children’s time to teachers, coaches, and volunteers it’s vital that the people working with our youth are dependable and effective, and as a former master sergeant Paco is someone who runs a tight ship at the South Omaha Boys & Girls Club he leads, ensuring that his staff has the best interests of children at heart just as he does.


“Paco” proves you can come home again

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico


South Omaha Boys & Girls Club unit director Francisco “Paco” Fuentes has won numerous awards for his youth development work, but he never gave a thought to serving kids until he returned home from the U.S. Air Force in 1998.

During a 20-year military career the South High grad moved often. He rose to the rank of master sergeant. His first civilian job after getting out was at the Omaha World-Herald, where he was a quality control technician. He had no complaints about how he was treated or paid there, but he couldn’t imagine making it a career.

“I call it my groundhog job. It was the same thing every day,” he said.

Then one Sunday Paco’s friend Alberto Gonzales mentioned the South O Boys & Girls Club was to undergo an extensive renovation. Fuentes was glad the club he devotedly attended as a boy was getting a serious makeover. Then when his friend told him the club was seeking a Spanish-speaking director with management experience, his interest piqued. He liked the idea of leading a facility that featured lots of programs and activities and involved multitasking.

Gonzales put in a good word for him to Boys & Girls Clubs of the Midlands head Tom Kunkel that night and the next day Paco found himself interviewing with Kunkel at the club. Being there for the first time since he was a kid released a flood of nostalgia in Fuentes.

“I was just overwhelmed with feeling. It was like, I remember this place. I had so many good memories from this club. Walking through it again it was like, Wow, this is home. By the time we finished I really, really wanted this job.”

He got it of course and 10 years later he’s never once regretted the decision.

“I love this job. I get up and I can’t wait to come to work. I think about this job all the time. It’s just a perfect fit for me because it’s a challenge. Every day is different. I can’t predict the next five minutes in this job and I guess I kind of like that.”

The depth of his feelings for the place and for the organization can best be understood by his own childhood experience. Born in Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico, he came to America with his family as a toddler in 1960. He and his three siblings grew up in “humble” circumstances. He struggled in school with reading and writing, he said, in part because his parents had practically no grasp of English.

He credits the Boys & Girls Club for supplementing the education he didn’t get at home or school and for providing a safe, nurturing haven for him to realize his potential. In classic pay-it-forward style, he and his staff do the same for kids today.

“Starting at age 8 I came every day. That first year I had a routine, I would go to all the different areas, including a small library,” he said. “I would open up one of the big picture books, look through it, then run off. One day I was about to run off and the librarian, Miss Pat, stopped me and said, ‘Excuse me, but is your name Francisco? Boy, you come in every day, you must love to read. Could you read for me?’ I didn’t say anything. ‘Well, how about I read for you?’

“I came in every day after that. She would stop whatever she was doing and read to me, and that grew into us reading together. Of course, she guessed right away I could barely read. She would help me with my words. More and more I started to read to her. Well, after awhile she got me to enter this weekly spelling bee. She gave me encouragement and I finally won. I’ll never forget : she pinned a first place ribbon on my chest and got on the intercom to congratulate me. I could hear kids clapping all through the club. I was just so happy.

“Miss Pat not only literally taught me to read but she gave me a love of words. The lessons I learned here have served me my entire life, so I love this club, I love the mission. I can see myself in a lot of these kids. It just is really gratifying work.”

The mission of the Boys & Girls Clubs is “to inspire and enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to realize their full potential as productive, responsible, healthy and caring citizens.”

Fuentes said given the dangers that exist now that didn’t when he was young, the need for clubs like this may be greater than ever. In response to that new, harsher reality, he said, his friend Alberto Gonzales teaches the Street Smart program at the South O club. The program addresses things like peer pressure, bullying, tobacco cessation, drug awareness and gang prevention.

“When you look at what’s going on, ” Fuentes said, referring to the rash of youth and young adult homicides in Omaha, “I truly think prevention is always better than intervention and suppression. If we can get to these kids at a young age and help them with moral values, skill sets, education — that can only be a good thing.”

Rather than think of other youth-community facilities or agencies, like the new Kroc Center for example, as competitors, he said, “they are our allies. We want to work with them. We do work with them. Our competitors are the gangs and anybody else that would want our kids to go in a negative direction.”

He said his club saw steady growth between 2000 and 2008 but that membership and attendance has flattened out some since. Blame the economy.

When he took the job a decade ago, he said, “I knew I had my work cut out. Our clientele was predominantly Latino, Spanish-speaking, but that didn’t necessarily reflect in the staff, so through attrition I made sure we had bilingual staff in all of the areas, especially the front office. Very basic stuff. I don’t want our kids to be tolerated, I want them to be celebrated, so I wanted staff that reflects our clientele.”

He said personnel changes, programming innovations (his club won a national award for programming in 2006), the $2.5 million renovation and networking helped make the club a more attractive option for kids and families.

“There was a lot of outreach, a lot of partnership,” he said. “I went to a lot of meetings, I joined a lot of committees and from that a lot of dynamics, give-and- take and working with the community came about.”

He said peak time at the club might find 25 separate activities happening at once, running the gamut from Homework Help lessons to art classes to DJing to board games to career development sessions to basketball, football, soccer and softball. He said the 30,000 square foot center gets lots of use.

Still, his club could serve more. “I wish we were at capacity. I wish there were more facilities,” he said. More kids will likely come through the doors this summer if the indoor pool, which has been closed a year for renovation, reopens as planned.

Fuentes, whose bright, toy-bedecked office is nothing like the spartan quarters he kept in the Air Force, enjoys being a role model to kids and a mentor to staff. Most of his staff are young enough to be his children. A husband and father of one, he never had an “inkling” he’d wind up in youth services, but he’s content to make this his last job if it should work out that way. His open-door policy has kids streaming in and out of his office all day.

As different as the 2000s are from the 1960s, some things have never changed at the club and he intends to keep it that way.

“The main thing I loved growing up here is that all of the kids were the same, whatever happened in this building was accessible to every single kid. It was all free, too. That still holds true. Kids from all walks of life, once they pass through those doors, they’re all the same. This is the great equalizer.”


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