Roberto Hernandez, El Centro director
Roberto Hernandez, El Centro director

Inspired by a lifetime of Catholic faith and watching the plight of immigrant families like his own, Roberto Hernandez takes to heart daily the call to love his neighbor as himself.

He has done so in numerous ways, most notably as co-founder and director of El Centro for Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton –  a social outreach agency dedicated to serving the Trenton area’s Spanish-speaking population. Hernandez also helped incorporate Trenton’s Anchor House home for runaways; sits on the board of directors for the Hamilton YMCA, and, this year, is celebrating his 25th anniversary as a New Jersey Special Olympics coach. 

Faith in Adversity

Along with his deep-rooted Catholic faith, two tales from his youth helped shape the 63-year-old’s calling in life.

The first took place when his parents, Catalino and Juanita, took him to the Hightstown resting place of his brother, Catalino Jr., who died of pneumonia at age 2 before Hernandez was born. Hernandez was dismayed at what he found. 

“There was no stone there, because at the time [he passed away], my family couldn’t afford it,” Hernandez said. “When we went to ask where his plot was located, they looked up the year, but they had no name because they didn’t know how to spell the name and put down ‘Puerto Rican baby boy’ to identify the grave number.

“I told the guys who worked in the cemetery ‘Well, he has a name. This person was born Catalino Hernandez Jr.’ I gave them the name, the family all chipped in and we got him a gravestone, which my mom was so grateful for.

“I don’t think there was any malice intended,” Hernandez added. “It was just a sign of the times. We all grow and learn.”  

Young Roberto learned another grim lesson of how difficult life was for Latino immigrants in early 1970s America. 

After being given $20 by his father to pay the public service bill, Hernandez lost the money en route to the utilities office. The young boy tried explaining his situation to the clerk, who refused to listen. He later returned with his father, but the clerk used profanity and an ethnic slur as he threw them out.  

“He said, ‘Come back when you learn to talk English,’” Hernandez said. “Now here’s my father, a World War II/Korean War combat veteran, and he apologized to the guy for wasting his time. I knew it was not necessary to treat people that way.”  

Those incidents burned fiercely in Hernandez’s mind – but he balanced the anger and disappointment with faith.  

“The Catholic upbringing was everything to me,” he said. “It basically influenced my life. From the moment I realized I was Catholic and what that meant to me and my family, I understood how we had to comport ourselves. We had an obligation to be of service and to help others, and we all are brothers and sisters in Christ. That really resonated with me.” 

Area of Opportunity

Roberto’s parents had moved to Hightstown from Puerto Rico, but they returned home after their infant son’s death. Praying to the Blessed Mary that things in America would be better a second time, they returned in 1968 when Roberto was 10. The family lived in Hightstown and Newark before settling in Trenton when their son was in middle school. 

“Like many immigrants and migrants, they made sacrifices for their children,” Hernandez said. “They had it a little tough, but they thought ‘Our children will do better [in America] than we did.’”  

Hernandez was introduced to basketball at Sacred Heart School in Trenton. One day he and some buddies were playing behind the school and a 1962 Thunderbird went roaring by. The driver was minding his own business but, as often can be the case, boys will be boys.

“We were all going ‘What a jerk that guy is,’ and we said it kind of loud,” Hernandez said. “We were all city kids, we thought we were cool.” 

A few weeks later at their first Catholic Youth Organization practice, the car’s driver entered the gym and announced, “It’s me, Mr. Jerk.” 

He turned out to be Msgr. James McManimon, the team’s coach who became a big influence on Hernandez, along with Sacred Heart priest Msgr. Leonard Toomey.  

Hernandez played basketball for Cathedral High School, Trenton, and Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville, as well as Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey), Ewing, and the Puerto Rican National Team. After graduating from TSC in 1980, Hernandez joined the Army Reserve for eight years before beginning a career with CCDOT.  

In 1999, with the help of Msgr. Toomey, Catholic Charities volunteer Dan Lundy and then-executive director Fran Dolan, Hernandez established El Centro in a quest to right the many wrongs that people like his family have had to endure. The organization provides extensive services for Mercer County’s Latino population, including free job training, food assistance, GED and ESL classes, citizenship, summer camps and after-school programs. 

“I could never have imagined what we have accomplished here,” Hernandez said, also praising the collaboration between El Centro, Sacred Heart Parish and its pastor, Father Dennis Apoldite. “Along with our other programs, we have saved lives and helped strengthen families. We have helped families though our health fairs that were hosted at Sacred Heart where hundreds of families arrived with all types of health issues: hypertension, diabetes, etc. We were able to connect to health care providers for help.

“Our Strengthening Families Program, in conjunction with the Diocese, was targeted to strengthen marriages and couples, and that also has been very successful,” he continued. “When I see [families] that have benefited, it’s pretty much all the reward we need.”  

COVID’s Impact

Unfortunately, COVID-19 caused a huge financial hit as El Centro lost two state contracts totaling $70,000. One was for a case manager position, which allowed El Centro to engage with high-risk Latino families to help them find services in the community and break the isolation many have encountered. The second was for a respite camp, which offered children ages 10-15 from low-income families the chance to enjoy trips to farms, educational trips and receive tutoring.

“We lost the contracts because of across-the-board cuts due to COVID,” Hernandez said. “We were always able to meet or exceed our LOS (levels of service).”

COVID-19 also forced the layoff of a 15-year employee, leaving a staff of seven to continue servicing the Latino community. They have kept things running, but El Centro is in need of financial help. Hernandez encourages anyone who wishes to donate to email or call 609-394-2056.

Another COVID casualty in Hernandez’ life has been the Special Olympics, which has been put on hold. He began coaching basketball 25 years ago and, along with Lucille Fenimore, started the Mercer Sailfish swimming program 12 years ago. 

“It’s amazing, I love doing it,” he said. “They make my day. They are so genuine, so loving. They care about each other; they care about everyone.” 

Members of St. Raphael-Holy Angels Parish, Hamilton, Roberto and his wife, Aida, reside in Hamilton Square have three sons. Their oldest, Carlos, is an attorney and an assistant coach on the Sailfish program, while the youngest, Roberto Jr., swims for the team and is a Special Olympics Gold Medal winner.  

Middle son Alejandro is an actor who plays Nurse Casey on NBC’s hit show, “New Amsterdam.” He recently gave a presentation on the importance of inclusion at the Hamilton Community Center.