Due to being short-staffed, Hector Cortez has been working three director positions at the national headquarters of the iconic Big Brothers Big Sisters of America in Philadelphia – director of Hispanic mentoring, vice president of strategic community engagement, and chief diversity officer. He doesn’t do it for the money, because he only gets paid one salary. He says he does it because having a mentor changed his life drastically for the better, and he’s working his hardest to replicate that experience for other Latino children.
After three years at Big Brothers Big Sisters of America trying to entice Latinos to be mentors, Cortez is excited to announce the launch of LatinoBigs.org this week- the nation’s first bilingual Web site focused on one-to-one long-term youth mentoring services. The site will be a platform to recruit more Latino volunteers and will allow mentors to share their stories of inspiration.
“It’s important to me, because I had a mentor in my life when I was in high school,” says Cortez whose father died when he was six, and his mother raised six children by herself. “I joined a street gang and started doing drugs. I just didn’t care, but it was this mentor who changed my life, and because of him, I was able to graduate high school.”
Cortez says his mentor also inspired him and made it possible for him to go to college.
“He was able to talk to a small college and influenced them to accept me even though my grades were not good,” says Cortez who was raised in Chicago but is originally from Puerto Rico. “He said, ‘Take a chance on this kid,’ and they paid for it. I was on probation the first quarter, and I made it. I completed four years in three and then did my masters, and it was because of him.”
Cortez says his mentor influenced him to care about people, to care about what you do in your life, and to care about giving back. Through Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, he says more than 200,000 kids a year are mentored, and one volunteer is needed for every child for one-to-one mentoring.
“As we’ve grown, 20 percent of all the children from across the nation are Latino,” says Cortez, who expects that number to grow at least 4 to 6 percent a year. “One of the things that’s critical to us is volunteers, because only 9 percent of the volunteers are Latinos…Latino children, by the year 2015, are going to be the biggest group – they will be our leaders, and they need help now.”
He says LatinoBigs.org was launched to create a buzz, because there are a lot of kids who don’t have adults in their life and need someone to help guide them.
“We would really like to recruit more male volunteers,” says Cortez, because the program which requires a commitment of 3 to 4 hours a month, for a year, tends to mostly recruit women. “Instead of watching TV or a football game, spend it with a kid and you can make a difference…When you are a mentor something happens to you as well – it’s fulfilling.”
Cortez also mentions how one pivotal moment he helped out with was a reminder his work was worthwhile.
“We took a child and their family to a see a college in Georgia,” says Cortez. “After that event, we got an e-mail from the dad saying, ‘My son stopped me and started telling me that he wanted to go to college. That was the first time he spoke of the dream as a reality.’”
Cortez says 90 percent of the Latinos he’s encountered in recent years say they want to go to college, but a big portion don’t think they are going to graduate.
“There’s a big difference between the dream and making it real,” he says. “Mentoring can make it real.”
By impacting one child, Cortez says you really make an impact on the entire family. He was the first in his family to graduate high school, and he says because of that, four out of his six siblings followed his example.
“We want to tell people – do something,” says Cortez. “Help us make a difference.”