Paco Fuentes has traveled the country and halfway around the world, only to wind up back in his old South Omaha, Neb., neighborhood. Fuentes, 50, runs the South Omaha Boys & Girls Club, which feels very much like home.
Born in Mexico, Fuentes moved to Omaha as a child with his immigrant parents. His father worked in meat packing houses, then in construction. His mother worked for years as a seamstress in the woolen mills.
Because he knew so little English, he flunked first grade. “My parents didn’t speak English,” he says. “My mom didn’t speak fundamental English until we were in middle school.
“In my second round of first grade, I still couldn’t read or spell.”
Then when he was 8, a neighborhood friend took him to “buddy night” at the South Omaha Boys Club. (Girls came later, in the early 1990s.) Fuentes was dazzled by the activities suddenly open to him: basketball, pool, swimming, chess, board games, arts and crafts. There was even a free hot meal. “I fell in love with it,” he says.
Although he was minority there as well, he felt welcomed. “What I remember is the staff here were very nurturing. I never felt like a poor kid. I felt just like one of the other hundreds of kids they had here. Everything was free. There were no barriers.”
One of the workers was “Miss Pat, who saw right away I couldn’t read. She worked with me for months. … As a result, I became a very good reader and writer. To this day, I love to write, I love words, and I credit her and the club for doing that for me.”
Fuentes went to the club almost every day until he was 12, when a co-ed after-school activity lured him away. During high school, he went “once in a blue moon.”
After high school, Fuentes put in 20 years in the U.S. Air Force, retiring in 1998. Along the way, he was stationed in San Antonio; Denver; Oklahoma City; Las Vegas; Norfolk, Va.; Valdosta, Ga.; Omaha; and Spain. When he retired, after developing a military specialty in computer graphics, he worked for two years at the Omaha World-Herald.
Then a childhood friend told him the South Omaha Boys & Girls Club was looking for a new director, one who was bilingual. “I hadn’t been there since I was a kid,” he says.
Soon he was back for an interview. “I was overwhelmed with the sense I was back home. … After a tour and talk, I wanted the job very badly, and it was offered to me.”
Today the club has 2,500 members, compared with 600 when Fuentes took over in 2000.
Says Fuentes, “I could be here the rest of my professional career, and I’d be very, very happy.”