By Tom Holmes
Phillip Jimenez grew up on Randolph Street in Forest Park, right across from the gas station which old timers might remember as Refiner's Pride. The story of how he climbed the ladder of success from being the son of a single mom who didn't speak English to becoming the President and CEO of the West Cook YMCA—just four blocks east on Randolph where he lived as a boy—is a story about intentional living.
And his plans for growing and shaping the YMCA and its role in the 10 near west communities it serves will be the latest test of that same intentionality.
Jimenez' success began with his mother. Immigrating to the Chicago area from Mexico in the 1960s, she was so good at sales that Carson Pirie Scott hired her and supplied her with an interpreter until she became proficient in English. She found her real calling, however, making wigs and hairpieces.
Jimenez explained, "She opened her own business in 1964 making hair pieces for cancer and alopecia patients in downtown Chicago -- across street from the old Marshall Field building. When I was 13 my mom insisted that I come to work for her calling clients to confirm appointments. That's where I started to learn some of my social skills, how to interact with folks. She had a style about her that allowed her to connect with people. A person would come into the salon for all intents and purposes broken, either fighting cancer or alopecia. All I knew is that a person would walk in not whole but when they left they were feeling better and there was something about that that I internalized."
Jimenez' mother sent him to Mexico for the first two years of his elementary school education. "I went to grade school in Puebla, Mexico for first and second grade," Jimenez said. "My mom had very defined thoughts and beliefs, and one of them was that I should be partially raised in my own country. I needed to go back to Mexico, and I needed to interact with my grandparents, so I would get those roots."
By third grade, Jimenez was enrolled at Grace Lutheran School in River Forest, because his mom believed it provided the "best education in this area." He spent his high school years at the Missouri Military Academy, because another "one of my mom's beliefs was that boys need extra discipline."
After high school he began to exhibit some of his mother's intentionality and independence. Feeling he'd had enough of private schools and homogeneous suburbs, he chose to get his bachelor's degree at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. In the spring of 1993, toward the end of his senior year, he surprised his professors informing them that he was going to take a year off and travel in Europe. He borrowed $8,000 from his family, got a job managing a bar in Torremolinos, Spain, and travelled in France, Turkey, Greece, Holland, Italy and all points in between.
"During my travels in Europe I did some journaling," he said, "I recognized that I'm probably more sensitive than I ever wanted to admit as a young guy and that I enjoyed being in relationships. I also recognized that I'm very resourceful, creative, a problem solver, and have a very high tolerance for fear. The hardest thing I was forced to face is that I'm very restless. The hardest thing was being alone with myself."
Returning to the Chicago area in 1994, he got a job in sales with the Inland Steel Corporation. Inland taught him "a work ethic which involved not just putting in the hours. It's about quality hours, about being thoughtful and intentional. Professional development for me was about leadership. It was about ethical, moral leadership."
During his last three years at Inland, Jimenez was a regional director for the company with his office in Mexico City. Now only did he love the assignment, he also met a woman named Beatrice whom he would eventually marry in 2005.
Jimenez described what happened next. "I flew my mom, my sister, and my niece to Mexico to visit. Part of the story is that since high school I was convinced that I was never going to marry someone. That started to crack when I saw my family and her family talking to each other. Beatrice and I were no longer part of the conversation. My mom would tell her mom everything about me and vice versa. Marriage wasn't a choice you slid into. This was not a do over thing. When I had seen this play out I began to realize that it was no longer a decision between Beatrice and me alone. There was a community of individuals who had a stake in our success. That's when I became less scared of the concept of marriage."
Rev. Bruce Modahl, the senior pastor at Grace who officiated at the wedding, said, "Phil, Beatrice and I included some Mexican traditions in the wedding. One of Phil's relatives translated for those relatives who came from Mexico and were not fluent in English. The wedding reception was one of the most joyous I have ever attended. Everyone got on the dance floor, young and old."
Even while climbing the success ladder in Mexico City, Jimenez began to wonder if making money was all there is to life. While back on his home turf on vacation, he had lunch with Rev. Dean Lueking, who had been the pastor at Grace when Jimenez was attending grade school there. Lueking remembered the conversation: "Phil said quite plainly, 'Now that I've landed such a good job and am making lots of money, I'm finding it unsatisfying. I don't want to chase dollars as the goal of my life."
After returning to this area, Jimenez attended a Bible study with Lueking and Dr. Martin Marty, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He told them, "I'm struggling with whether to go into nonprofit, because I'm scared of how sacrificial nonprofit would be."
So he asked them, "is it sinful to make a good salary to do good work," to which Dr. Marty replied, "there's no sin in being rewarded handsomely for doing good work—now what you define as reward is different for everybody."
"That freed me to literally dive into working in the nonprofit space," said Jimenez, "because you have to understand that I grew up being very blessed. I am not the traditional Mexican immigrant person. Winning the geographic and gene lottery are things that I can't take credit for so the idea here becomes how do I dedicate my time to making the world a better place. The greatest gift my mom transferred to me was about helping people without seeing it as a sacrifice."
That freedom led Jimenez to a succession of leadership positions in the nonprofit sector: to Lutheran Child and Family Services in River Forest where he served as vice president of development, to the San Miguel School in the Back of the Yards neighborhood on the south side of Chicago where he was the president and then to the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen as its president and chief operating officer.
Jimenez took over the position of president and CEO of the West Cook YMCA in Oak Park on May 19, and sees all the experiences in his working life as preparing him for his current responsibilities. "I have very intentionally gone from the for profit to social services to the education space to arts and culture; and now the Y presents to me a mixture of all of it."
John Harris, a member of the YMCA board, explained why, after completing a national search, Jimenez was picked to lead the Y: "Phil has great leadership and fundraising skills, yet it was his passion for building a strong non-profit and serving our communities that made him the top candidate to lead the West Cook YMCA. He has a rare combination of vision, energy and leadership."
During the first years of his time at the Y, Jimenez plans to focus on, among other things:
1. The facility. "She's vintage," he said. "but she can still be beautiful. All it takes is intentionality, smart investment and elbow grease. There's no reason why this building can't be sparkling."
2. Creative new ways of dealing with the same issues. The challenges at the Y are common to most nonprofits: fundraising, building maintenance, membership recruitment, leadership development. "I think the board is sending a pretty strong message in choosing a person from outside the Y," he said.
3. SRO residents. The Y has the capacity to house 100 men in their single room occupancy facility. "We have occupancy in the high 80 percent," Jimenez said. "These gentlemen present an opportunity for ministry by developing programming and a case management structure to help and enable the SRO residents to change their own circumstances."
4. Serving the broader community. "In addition to running the YMCA," said Harris, "the board is excited about Phil's passion for serving the 10 communities in the Y's service area. This summer, the Y is managing the Fred Hampton Aquatic Center in Maywood, and we are developing programming through the 'Y Without Walls' effort around the near western suburbs."
After two months at the helm, Jimenez said he's been busy but not stressed, saying, "I have been blessed with never having a job; I've always had vocations or ministries."