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FIST’s Waukegan thrift store receives support and gripes

The FIST Thrift store located 680 S. Genesee Street Waukegan. The store opened April 2010. | Thomas Delany Jr.~Sun-Times Media

The FIST Thrift store located at 680 S. Genesee Street in Waukegan. The store opened in April 2010. | Thomas Delany Jr.~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 16, 2012 1:35AM

WAUKEGAN — Advocates for Former Inmates Striving Together Inc., addressed the City Council Monday to express their continuing support after word spread late last week that a registered sex offender is working at the anti-recidivist organization’s thrift store on south Genesee Street.

“FIST members have spent thousands of hours volunteering (in the community), and they have never had any complaints lodged against them,” said former Waukegan School Board member Deborah Doxie, one of a half-dozen FIST backers to address the council on the issue. “I ask you, does this sound like an organization that promotes unsafe conditions for the residents of the city of Waukegan?”

State Rep. Rita Mayfield, D-Waukegan, told the council that paroled offenders re-entering a community “need a feeling of self-worth, and they’re getting that through the FIST organization.”

“We’re talking about individuals who were born and raised here in Waukegan who have fractured pasts who have come back here to Waukegan, and they need help. They need resources, they need a place to stay, they need jobs,” said Mayfield, adding that when organizations offer to help, “we need to build them up, not tear them down.”

Local activist Margaret Carrasco circulated an e-mail last week stating that the FIST Thrift Store at 680 S. Genesee, was employing “sex offenders,” while noting the store’s proximity to two churches and the Boys & Girls Club of Lake County.

FIST founder Joe Schmitt told the council that “we do have a member under contract working at the thrift store who is a registered sex offender. This gentleman’s crime was over six years ago, was non-violent and involved an older teen. Our member has served his sentence, completed his counseling, has not re-offended, has no complaints lodged against him at this time and has lived with his pastor’s 65-year-old mother for this past year.”

Schmitt added that the organization “has no sex offenders living at this property, (nor) do we place the community in any harm’s way. ... We recognize our twofold responsibility — first to protect the community; secondly, to protect our members.”

While Schmitt said that the store has operated “for 22 months with no complaints,” Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue resident Joe Smith told the council that he feels the city has been “sending garbage to our neighborhood” by welcoming the organization.

“My biggest complaint is how our leadership has failed us in letting this filth in FIST come into our neighborhood,” Smith said. “We got a pedophile in there, and we’ve got to watch out for our kids. ... We don’t need this in our neighborhood and we don’t want it in our neighborhood, and (Schmitt) can go with it.”

Reaction from the council was largely silent, but 9th Ward Ald. Rafael Rivera expressed his support for FIST, saying its members have volunteered at his annual Rafael Rivera III Memorial Golf Outing for Asthma Research.

“One person I can really speak well about is Joe Schmitt. He’s always been there to help with my charity,” Rivera said. “I just want to say, Joe, keep up the good work. You have my support.”

But 1st Ward Ald. Sam Cunningham, whose mother, District 9 County Board member Mary Ross Cunningham, is being opposed by Schmitt in the November election, said he felt “blindsided, bamboozled” that he wasn’t informed about the situation at the thrift store, which sits in his ward.

“I’m very disappointed, very disappointed, not because the person is there, but because you didn’t say anything to me,” Cunningham said to Schmitt, adding that “maybe you think because you’re running against my mom” they couldn’t communicate. “In the future, not just for Sam, but anybody, if that does happen, please inform me. ... So I hope this clears up this matter between you and I, and let the games begin.”

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