Humberto Huerta finally found the kind of friend he had been wishing for.
His new compadre, wearing a business suit, arrived on his doorstep on Christmas Eve. One could say Roger Garcia was a long-awaited present.
Humberto had been on a waiting list for more than 18 months to be matched with a Big Brothers Big Sisters mentor who could speak Spanish and communicate with Humberto's mom.
The 9-year-old Omaha boy didn't say much the first time he met Garcia, but he was all smiles.
Garcia, a Hispanic community leader, said he stepped up as Humberto's mentor because he could empathize with the boy and felt a connection to him. Like Humberto, Garcia's dad wasn't involved in his life.
“I saw a little bit of myself in Humberto,” Garcia said. “I want to be his mentor because I remember what it was like to not have a role model in my life while I was growing up. Latino male youth need positive role models.”
Men have been less likely than women to volunteer for Big Brothers Big Sisters, even though boys are the overwhelming majority waiting to be matched with a mentor, said Jim Frederick of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Midlands.
In recent years the organization has faced an additional challenge of finding Spanish-speaking mentors.
Nationally, about 20 percent of the children involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters are Latino, but only 9 percent of mentors are Hispanic. In Omaha, seven boys and three girls are in need of a Spanish-speaking “big brother” or “big sister.”
Garcia, 27, said he would have benefited from having a mentor while growing up in Columbus, Neb., where the Latino population was small. But he succeeded nonetheless. He went to college on a full scholarship at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Now Garcia heads El Centro de las Américas, a Lincoln-based nonprofit working to educate and empower the Latino and Hispanic community.
He also serves on the board of Metropolitan Community College. Garcia, his wife and stepdaughter live in South Omaha's Deer Park neighborhood, not far from Humberto's home.
As a Latino mentor, Garcia hopes to help Humberto follow his goal of becoming a police officer. He also wants Humberto to have fun.
On a cold day in January, the two met up in a gym to play dodgeball with other people involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters.
A referee yelled “Ready, set, dodgeball” and the two darted for the soft balls placed at center court. Garcia tossed Humberto one of the balls and they began pummeling players on the opposite side of the court.
“Now that I have a big brother, I feel happier than I had before,” Humberto said. “The most important thing to me is just spending time with Roger.”
The Big Brothers Big Sisters program emphasizes mentors and children hanging out for a few hours a month doing fun, inexpensive activities.
Having a mentor can help youths become more confident, keep good grades and stay away from violence and illegal activities, according to Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Youths involved in the program often have faced obstacles that make them at risk for performing poorly in school, having behavioral problems or getting into trouble.
Humberto's father, recently released from federal prison, was abusive to the boy, his six siblings and their mother, Angelina. The father isn't allowed to be around them anymore.
Angelina enrolled Humberto in Big Brothers Big Sisters because she thought it would be a good way for her son to gain confidence and stay out of trouble when he enters his teenage years.
She said she has noticed that Humberto is a little more outgoing, knowing that Garcia is a friend he can trust.
“Having a big brother will help Humberto have more self-esteem and be more self-assured,” she said through a translator.
Humberto already earns good grades, Angelina said, but she thinks having a mentor will encourage him to continue to work hard.
Humberto is shy, but he is one of the first students at school to raise his hand to answer the teacher's question, said his art teacher, Stephanie Carlson-Pruch. He is naturally thoughtful, funny and caring, she added.
“He is a very special young man,” Carlson-Pruch said.