One of six children in a Puerto Rican family, Hector Cortez fell into the gang lifestyle in Chicago after his father died. He could have been lost, 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 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.”

A volunteer Big Brother bonds with his “little” over a game of billiards. (Big Brothers Big Sisters)

Mentors make a difference

For children like Cortez, finding one’s place in mainstream American society can be a challenge. Having a positive role model helps, and Big Brothers Big Sisters tries to provide such a person.

The organization has paired volunteer mentors with disadvantaged children for more than 100 years, but it wasn’t until 2007 that it launched a mentoring program tailored to 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 generally speak English, often at least one parent does not.

Matching up

The mentors do not have to be Hispanic, but do undergo background checks, personality screening and extensive training. It is an essential process, Cortez said, matching the volunteer with the child’s family. “The stronger that match is made in the beginning, the longer it will last,” he said.

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 other event, he said.

Touring a museum can help give a “little brother” a different perspective on life. (Big Brothers Big Sisters)

Success through school

The mentor-child relationship typically lasts two years or until the child reaches the age of 16. Most of the children 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 works hard 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.

In June 2013, Hector Cortez began a new position at the American Friends Service Committee.

During National Hispanic Heritage Month, September 15–October 15, the U.S. honors the culture, traditions and extraordinary contributions of Americans who trace their roots to Spain, Mexico and the Spanish-speaking nations of Central America, South America and the Caribbean.