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Mentoring Program Honored

By Nancy Martinez, Staff Writer
San Antonio Express-News

Ask George Rodriguez about his family and his answers are short. He doesn't know where his parents are. He doesn't say much more about that, except that they've both done time in jail for various reasons.

But ask him about his mentor, “big brother” Chris, and his face brightens into a smile and he's even joking.

George, 16, and other mentor matches shared their stories during a ceremony Thursday afternoon when the federal government recognized the local mentoring program for children of the incarcerated as one of the best in the country.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Texas attempts to match all children who desire a mentor; federal government officials were in San Antonio to specifically recognize the program's mentoring to children of the incarcerated.

The organization has about 2,400 active matches, about 400 of which involve children of the incarcerated.

“Out of 440 grantees nationwide, we're only visiting the best ones,” said Daniel Schneider, assistant secretary of the Health and Human Services Department, which funds the program. “This program is one of the finest in the whole country. It shows how valuable one-on-one mentoring is.”

Chris Christal, 28, has been Rodriguez's “big brother” mentor for nearly three years.

“This is one of the best programs in the world,” Christal said. “There are no expectations, no hidden agendas. They don't want you to be a father figure or a tutor, they don't ask for money. They just want you to help. So you get to make a strong impact on one person, heart to heart, brain to brain, soul to soul.”

Russell Dorazio, 26, is 15-year-old Trey DeLuna's big brother.

“I came in expecting to give something, but I ended up being totally blessed. He's helped me grow up. I've learned a lot about life through him,” Dorazio said.

DeLuna said he's proud of his father right now because he's not in jail, but knows if history is any indication, he will be locked up again soon.

“When he's in jail, I go through my ups and downs. I get depressed. One week I can talk to him freely and the next, I have to go visit him in jail,” DeLuna said.

Nationwide, there are more than 2 million children of prisoners. According to Health and Human Services, children of the incarcerated are seven times more likely to become incarcerated.

In 2003, President Bush announced the Mentoring Children of Prisoners program in his State of the Union address as part of his administration's Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, programs across the country have been awarded more than $175 million.

Schneider said Thursday that this year the federal agency would likely recognize six to 10 programs nationwide. Among the measures of success for mentoring programs are the number of children mentored and the efficiency of the program.

“This one is doing both. They are both efficient and effective,” Schneider said. Setting an example is part of the mentoring story, too. And that can be fun. Brian Carbajal, a supervisor at Home Depot, told a packed room that he tries to show his 14-year-old “little brother” that hard work can pay off.

“I took him to test-drive a Mercedes, a Cadillac, a Jaguar,” Carbajal chuckled.

“I told him that if he wants these cars, he could have them. But he has to work hard, do well in school.”

There are 300 children waiting for a mentor. For information, call Big Brothers Big Sisters at (210) 225-6322.