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Jimenez: Leading YMCA rewarding in many ways

November 23, 2014

  • Phillip Jimenez, West Cook YMCA President/CEO
  • El local del YMCA de West Cook está ubicado en 255 S. Marion St., Oak Park.
    West Cook YMCA is located at 255 S. Marion St., Oak Park.

Phillip Jiménez is the new President & CEO of West Cook YMCA in Oak Park.

Q: You were named president/CEO of the West Cook YMCA this past spring, how are things going so far?

A: Very well. We’ve had a very busy second half of the year, but a productive one that is beginning to pay off in so many ways. Among the several initiatives that we undertook: As a demonstration of stewardship and the importance of preserving an important community asset, we organized a thorough top-to-bottom deep cleaning of the West Cook YMCA’s 60-year-old building during a two-week end of summer recess. The renewal, restoration and refurbishment went much deeper than adding new paint, floor coverings and new membrane in the swimming pool. Scores of volunteers and staff worked closely side-by-side with residents of our single room occupancy, or SRO, facilities and board members to restore our main structure here in Oak Park and gave new meaning to one of the YMCA’s core missions — spirit.

We are actively engaged in implementing several new strategic partnerships with other community organizations in the service area and are strengthening existing relationships. We term this initiative as the “Y Without Walls,” or Y-WOW, for it’s possible to deliver quality services to our constituents without adding one new brick or building one new wall. An excellent example of building on an existing relationship and providing a “Y-WOW” service has been the West Cook YMCA’s operation of the Fred Hampton Family Aquatic Center and Pool in nearby Maywood. The important lifelong skill of swimming was taught to scores of young people and adults and many youth and families enjoyed many hours of swimming during open swim periods, summer camps, sponsored outings and special events this past summer.

Another example of the “Y-WOW” approach is a newly forged partnership between the Westlake Hospital in Melrose Park, the Westlake Health Foundation and the West Cook YMCA to serve residents of Maywood, Northlake and Proviso Township. Funded by a three-year grant of $479,000 from the Westlake Health Foundation, residents will be served with free health screenings for the early detection of chronic and preventable diseases which may be potentially life-threatening; health and wellness education programs to help understand and manage prevalent and preventable diseases; and fitness sessions to enjoy more active and healthy lives.

Another example of the “Y-WOW” approach in action is the Teen REACH program the West Cook YMCA conducted for students enrolled in the 3rd through 5th grades at three Maywood elementary schools this summer. Funded by a $52,250 grant from the Illinois Department of Human Services, the REACH program focused on Responsibility, Education, Achievement, Caring and Hope and concentrated on math, science, literacy, global education, service learning and health and fitness. Another new initiative we’ve undertaken has been to shift the West Cook YMCA’s Resident program from a traditional SRO (single room occupancy) setting to offer optional Case Management services to the occupants of our 127 rooms so they may have opportunities to transition to healthy and productive lives. We have strengthened our partnership with the West suburban PADS organization which assists its enrollees move to employment and self-sufficiency.

Q: What has been the biggest challenge in taking over the position?

A: The West Cook YMCA is part of a worldwide organization that works in 120 countries and is focused on making the world a better place. Here in America, collectively we’re the largest not-for community service organization in the U.S. with more than 2,800 separate YMCAs serving people of all faiths, races, abilities, ages and incomes. Our goal is to help all who we serve build a healthy spirit, mind and body. We do this through programs that help enrich lives and teach people of all ages how to grow spiritually, mentally and physically. So, the continuing challenge is to examine the specific needs of the communities we serve and then be selective and mount programs that we know will respond to the needs of our members. To be specific, the West Cook YMCA, now 110-years-old, offers some 100 different programs and classes weekly and touches the lives of more than 10,000 people in 10 West suburbs.

Q: What about your personal background? Where did you grow up?

A: I grew up on Randolph Street in Forest Park, just four blocks from where I sit everyday at the West Cook YMCA in Oak Park. My father died when I was very young, so I was raised by a single mother who emigrated from Mexico in the 1960s. Initially, my mother didn’t speak English, but she was so good at sales at Carson Pirie Scott that they provided her with an interpreter until she became proficient in English. She knew how to make wigs and hairpieces. In 1964, my mother opened her own business in downtown Chicago, across the street from the former Marshall Field’s — making hair pieces for cancer and alopecia patients.

At 13, my mother had me working in her business, calling clients to confirm appointments. This was invaluable experience, for I learned social skills and how to interact with people from all walks of life. My mother had a style about her that allowed her to connect with people. A customer would come to her salon as a broken, depressed person who was fighting cancer. When she left, they were feeling much better. That’s a lesson I learned and internalized. My mother sent me to Puebla, Mexico for the first and second grades of my elementary education so I could interact with my grandparents and strengthen my family roots. By third grade, I enrolled in the Grace Lutheran School in River Forest, because my mother believed that it offered the best education in the area. When it was time for high school, because my mother believed that boys needed extra discipline, I was sent to the Missouri Military Academy in Mexico, Missouri, a residential college preparatory school that combined academic rigor with military tradition and leadership skills.

Q: Tell us about your professional experience prior to coming here.

A: After high school years at Missouri Military Academy, I pursued a bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In the Spring of 1993, at the end of my senior year, I decided to take a year off and travel through Europe. I borrowed $8,000 from my family and traveled in France, Turkey, Greece, Holland, Italy and Spain where I managed a bar in Torremolinos.

When I returned to Chicago in 1994, I joined the Inland Steel Corp.’s sales department where I really learned about professional development, work ethic and leadership. I was promoted to be a regional director of Inland in Mexico City.

After spending time reflecting on my life and consulting with two of my most important mentors, the Rev. Dean Leuking, then pastor of Grace Lutheran Parish in River Forest, where I was enrolled during my early school years, and Dr. Martin Marty of the University of Chicago Divinity School, I realized that while my business career was moving forward, it was somewhat unsatisfying. I realized that I didn’t just want to chase dollars as the goal of my life. I believed that I had a calling to move from the corporate world to nonprofit organizations.

So, I pursued a series of leadership positions in the not-for-profit sector. First, with Lutheran Child and Family Services in River Forest where I was vice president for development. Then, I went to the San Miguel School in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, as its president. Next, I spent time at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen as president and chief operating officer and since mid-May, I’ve been here at the West Cook YMCA as its President and CEO. I’m most fortunate, for this very eclectic background — a mixture of corporate, social service, education and the arts — has been great preparation for this YMCA post. I’ve been able to blend all of these experiences here at the YMCA where we focus on our residents, maintain our membership and seek new members and offer programs that have an element of entertainment and education as well as health and fitness.

Q: What attracted you to this position?

A: The opportunity to come to the West Cook YMCA was a very important one for me. As a youngster, I grew up in nearby Forest Park, just a few blocks away. I benefited greatly from the West Cook YMCA’s nurturing environment which stressed adopting the core values of caring, respect for others and responsibility for one’s own actions. So now I’m here, directing the work of an integrated series of programs and projects that have a real and substantive impact on the same community where I lived as a youngster and where I now live. This is rare in America today and I so very much appreciate it.

Q: Are there new initiatives coming up at the Y?

A: We will continue to pursue the Healthy Community Initiatives with West Lake Hospital and the Westlake Health Foundation. In addition, we’re preparing to participate in a national diabetes prevention program through the USA YMCA. We’re looking forward to fully implementing the Case Management system for residents of our single resident occupancy rooms in cooperation with the West suburban PADS organization. We will continue to evaluate and initiate new amenities for members of the West Lake YMCA to ensure that they have the best possible experience in their classes, programs and workout sessions.

Q: Tell us a little bit about how the West Cook YMCA differs from others in the area?

A: Unlike many YMCAs in the greater Chicago metropolitan area, the West Cook YMCA is a true independent not-for-profit organization. While we follow the spirit and substance of the YMCA of the USA’s principles and operating standards and we can draw on the national and regional YMCA resources for advice and counsel, our board makes its own decisions and takes responsibility for its own actions without any direct involvement with others. So, the West Cook YMCA must stand or fall on its own merit. That means that we must constantly review and adjust our programs and services provided for the residents of the communities we serve so we are in accord with the true needs of our constituents, not bound by artificial set of rules or regulations drafted by a distant group of people who are not necessarily familiar with the needs of our day-to-day situation

Q: What was your first job?

A: I grew up in Forest Park, just a few blocks west of where I sit in my office at the West Cook YMCA today. My very first job was delivering a weekly paper in that community. At about the same time, I also worked in a Laundromat owned by my uncle on the southwest side of Chicago. I was responsible for making sure the washing machines were working, kept the soft drink and soap machines filled, swept the floor and washed the windows. It was a good first working experience for me, for I learned the importance of being punctual, doing a job correctly and finishing it.

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