A mentor at a support organization for Latinos and Hispanics has made a huge difference in the life of 18-year-old Antonio "Tony" Carillo.
He now has a part-time job, a college scholarship and big ambitions, thanks in large part to the encouragement of Carla Fernandez-Soto, who started a Youth Council at the Voces nonprofit in Battle Creek.
"She tries to talk to us about our futures. She tries to give us something to look forward to," says Carillo, who is attending Kellogg Community College this fall.
Fernandez-Soto is the outreach coordinator at Voces, which was started three years ago to provide medical interpretive services. Funded by the Kellogg Foundation, the Battle Creek Community Foundation and United Way donations, it now has a Community and Cultural Center at 520 W. Michigan Ave. and has grown to offer Family Education and Youth & Parent Engagement programs too.
The education program provides English as a Second Language classes and computer-literacy classes for adults and a reading-readiness venture and play groups for preschoolers. The Youth Council is part of the engagement program.
Carillo met Fernandez-Soto in the lunchroom of Lakeview High School last fall on a day when he and other students were making a trip to check out Western Michigan University. "She was, like, older, and I thought, 'What are you doing here?'" says Carillo.
Fernandez-Soto was there to raise awareness of Voces among high school students, and she and Carillo hit it off. "A week later I showed up for Voces," says Carillo. "It was nice to have someone to talk over questions about the real world."
For Fernandez-Soto, it was nice to have a teenager motivated to help set up the Youth Council. "Something he said really stood out to me," she says. "He said, 'A lot of people kind of forget about us (the Latino community). I want people to know we're here and have a voice.' I remember thinking, 'He's really insightful. I can tell he really wants to make a difference.'"
The Voces Youth Council, for middle school and high school students, has about a dozen active participants and many other occasional attendees. "We're trying to get them motivated to stay in school," says Fernandez-Soto, "and if they do graduate successfully, to figure out what's next. There's a lot of preparation for college readiness, but also it's a support group where kids can feel free to be themselves and ask any questions they might have. ... We want to show them that they have a voice, that they can effect change."
The name of the organization helps send that message. Voces is a Spanish word meaning voices.
"We really knew we needed to build the leadership capacity of youth," says Kate Flores, the executive director of Voces. "The Youth Council was started a year ago, and the youth responded immediately. We were going to have them meet once a month for an hour, and they wanted to meet twice a week for two hours."
The young people help determine the direction the Youth Council goes, says Fernandez-Soto. They plan social activities, fundraising projects and volunteer work and let her know what kinds of workshops would be helpful to them. So far, she has brought in workshop leaders to talk about college financial aid, resumes, scholarships and self-defense. "She really made us think about, hey, we need to get jobs," says Carillo. "'You're not going to be living with your parents the rest of your lives,'" she told them.
Carillo now has a part-time job at a place where the Youth Council did volunteer work, the Charitable Union, in downtown Battle Creek. Fernandez-Soto let the Youth Council know about the job opening, and Carillo asked her for help to apply for it.
The 125-year-old organization was started by Battle Creek women who saw that some kids weren't going to school because they didn't have school clothes, says Carillo. "It's like Goodwill, but the clothes are free, and now it's also for adults," he says.
Carillo has been working there 25 to 30 hours a week since June. "I'll be able to work there while I'm in school too, but obviously I'll work less hours," he says.
At first he thought he would start college at Western so he decided to compete for WMU's Multicultural Leadership Scholarship, which Fernandez-Soto told him about. She accompanied him to WMU the day of the competition, which involved essay writing and group problem solving.
Carillo won the scholarship, which provides $4,000 a year for four years, but realized he would have to come up with several thousand dollars more per year to attend WMU. Wanting to avoid a debt burden, he decided instead to use a scholarship he had obtained through the Battle Creek Community Foundation to attend Kellogg Community College. He plans to transfer to WMU after a few years.
He wishes all Latino students were as motivated as he is. "A lot of kids my age don't care about school," he says. "It's more about working and making money." He has encouraged some friends to join the Youth Council, but "it's hard because they don't really care," he says. "It's difficult to get somebody involved in something they don't care about. I don't understand it. My parents have given 125 percent for me. If I don't do something with my life, it's embarrassing that I have nothing to show for it."
Recognizing that parents are key to young people's success, Voces' engagement program serves as a support system for Latino and Hispanic parents too, helping them become familiar with the educational system, overcome language barriers and get connected with resources, says Fernandez-Soto.
"A lot of these students might become first-generation college students," she says, "so they can't necessarily go to their parents and say, 'How do I go to college?' We're really trying to equip parents with as much knowledge as they can have so they know of resources that can help their child. If a parent knows that post-secondary education is a possibility, then they can help keep their child motivated. A lot of my students have younger siblings. If parents learn how to help the older siblings, then they can help the younger ones too."
Carillo has three younger siblings and feels an obligation to serve as a role model. "Being the first, I'm the example," he says. "I have to show the way."
Ultimately, he wants to attend the planned WMU Medical School and become a cardiac surgeon. "When somebody looks at a Latino kid, they don't see that kid's going to be a doctor someday," says Carillo, but he's determined to prove that perception wrong.
Fernandez-Soto is confident he will. "I can tell he really, really wants to move forward. He's really driven and motivated."
Margaret DeRitter is a freelance writer and editor living in Kalamazoo.
Photos courtesy of Voces.