Washington — One of six children of Puerto Rican immigrants, Hector Cortez fell into the gang lifestyle in Chicago after his father died. But a local minister encouraged Cortez to finish secondary school and go on to college.
“He directed me toward a small college that accepted me on probation because my grades were so bad and helped me secure a scholarship,” Cortez said. “I was the first in my family to graduate college.”
After 30 years working in the nonprofit sector, Cortez took a job as senior director for a Hispanic mentoring program at the nonprofit Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. “I’ve had a mentor in my life that made a difference,” he said. “I wanted to give back to a generation of Latinos.”
For the children of Hispanic immigrants, finding one’s place in mainstream American society can be a bewildering challenge. Having a big brother or sister to guide the way helps, and time with such a person is what Big Brothers Big Sisters offers.
The organization has provided volunteer mentors to disadvantaged children for more than 100 years, but it wasn’t until 2007 that it launched its mentoring program tailored to serve Hispanic children living in the United States.
The program serves 40,000 Hispanic children each year, according to Cortez. The families that enlist the aid of a mentor, he said, are often living in economically hard-hit communities with underfunded schools. While the children participating generally speak English, at least one parent does not.
The mentors do not have to be Hispanic — about 63 percent are not. Mentors undergo background checks, personality screening and training on the environment of the children they help. It is an essential process, Cortez said, in matching the volunteer with the child’s family. “The stronger that match is made in the beginning, the longer it will last,” he said.
According to Cortez, mothers of children who are participating in the program will say: "I would like somebody who will take my child and show him the American dream.”
Mentors spend four hours each month with their “littles” — as the children who are mentored are called — going to museums, playing games or hanging out. Cortez stressed that volunteers make a time commitment but do not take on a financial burden. Often a Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter provides tickets to a ballgame or another event, he said.
The mentor-child relationship typically lasts two years or until the child reaches the program’s maximum eligibility age of 16. Most children in the program are between 8 and 11 years old, but the program is attempting to enlist older children, who face greater temptations for risky behavior.
“In the Latino community, the middle school years are transitional,” Cortez said. “You can have a very well-behaved child in the early years, but once they go into middle school, there’s a tendency to engage in alcohol use, smoking and gangs.”
The program makes an intense effort to keep children in school, Cortez said. Although surveys show most Hispanic children aspire to college, he said, “they feel a heavy burden to go to work and support the parents, because the parents have sacrificed so much. That’s a huge hurdle.”
Results of the current mentoring program are encouraging. A 2009 survey of former “littles” found that 70 percent went on to college for at least two years and 60 percent had jobs that brought in more than $70,000 per year.
Perhaps most important is the finding that many former “littles” grow up to become mentors themselves.