From Welfare to the Tea Party: Local Business Owner Tries to be a ‘Good Neighbor’
Insurance agent Jim Fuentes has a life of volunteering once the office closes.
You may have seen his face on the side of a State Farm Insurance van while driving through Tinley Park. He looks happy. His smile sparkles. His arms are stretched out as if he’s inviting you to join his team. If you ever had the chance to meet Mr. Jim Fuentes, you’d quickly learn that he is.
Fuentes’ position as a Tinley Park businessman, political figure, Illinois Patriot Alliance – TOP Tea Party founder and public access host is a far cry from his youth in Calumet City.
“Growing up we were poor. We were on welfare,” Fuentes said. “Our main meal was tortillas and beans. The saying in our house was ‘The first one up gets the underwear.’ That’s how poor we were.”
“My mother didn’t like being on welfare,” he said. “It was pride. She wanted to get off. She taught me to live by determination and attitude. That’s my concept of life.”
In Tinley Park, Fuentes has been involved with several village events including block parties, parades, community gardens and the beautification of Oak Park Avenue. He hosts public television show that showcases various Tinley Park businesses. He has served as president of the Oak Park Avenue Main Street Association.
“We have such great merchants and businesses that come together and give back,” he said. “That’s what makes the difference.”
Fuentes can give you the history of almost any Tinley Park business and its owner, he can recite dollar amounts on trust projects and describe in detail how monies was raised and spent. Because he has been involved in almost every aspect of Tinley Park business, he can also go on about economical and political changes.
It’s not uncommon to find Fuentes working on three or more projects at the same time. Working is like second nature to him. He’s been doing it all of his life. Working two jobs is not uncommon.
“Sometimes I worked 40 hours straight,” he said. “It wasn’t right but I wanted to be better in my life. I wanted to make it. I always wanted to be better because I didn’t have much growing up. So I always wanted to do whatever I could and be the best at it. I always worked night and day.”
Work is the one subject that gives Fuentes pause. It takes him back to his youth and his humble beginnings in Calumet City. He gets emotional.
As a kid, Fuentes had several paper routes. The money he earned would go to his family.
“I’d go to school with black hands because the ink from the papers would rub off on them,” he said.
His longing for the American dream kept Fuentes focused. He went to college on a wrestling scholarship. After earning a degree in Biology Science he became a health occupations coordinator, which allows students to get real-life experiences working in doctor’s offices while in high school. He coached basketball and track. He was going to school to earn a Master’s degree and working at night as a paramedic.
He said he was one of the few paramedics who would enter Chicago’s Altgeld Gardens and Cabrini Green housing projects. At the time, paramedics and some police officers refused to go into these housing complexes because they were being shot at, Fuentes said.
“(Residents) would tell me I can’t go up the elevator unless I paid them,” Fuentes said. “I’d say, ‘I’m going up here to help someone’s sister. Someone’s dying.’”
A picture of a young Fuentes at a wrestling match sits in his office. Next to him on the court is his younger brother who was gunned down by gangs.
“Yes, life’s not perfect but you have to give back and I do whatever I can do to be more philanthropic,” Fuentes said.
Fuentes recognizes that a lot of people helped him along the way and he’s made it his goal to do the same. “I’ve always been big on mentorship. I think it’s important, being a former educator, that we educate the students in conjunction with the business community and the volunteerism. We need the young people to step up and give back because that’s what life is about, giving back and making a difference.”
In the motivational speeches he writes as part of his State Farm responsibilities, Fuentes encourages students to write down and visualize their goals.
“They should all be dreaming about the future and planning for it. My success has always been about directing goals and improving the environment and the community.”
At night when his State Farm office closes, Fuentes employees high school and college students to work for him as telemarketers.
“He’s a great boss,” Office Manager Angel Dunne said. “He’s always there for us and he gives great advice.”
Fuentes encourages his staff volunteer.
“Being a part of the community is hand-in-hat,” Fuentes said.