Sandra Pinto, client services coordinator for El Centro, looks over a mentor program information sheet with Agustíne Chavez and Monica Cabrera at the El Centro office in Trenton. Matt Greeley photo
Sandra Pinto, client services coordinator for El Centro, looks over a mentor program information sheet with Agustíne Chavez and Monica Cabrera at the El Centro office in Trenton. Matt Greeley photo

Sandra Pinto has some advice for those looking to make a difference – start in your own backyard.

Catholic Charities Diocese of Trenton’s El Centro is looking for volunteers to serve as mentors to youth who have difficult life challenges in their own community.

“This is our opportunity to help Trenton, to help the people who live here have a better future. You want to change the world? This is one right here,” said Pinto, client services coordinator for El Centro, which provides outreach to the Spanish-speaking community.

“[The program] is more about prevention – it’s about helping children who are in a vulnerable situation, have some kind of trauma or hardship in the family,” she said. “We want to prevent any more bad things from happening to these children and offer support from someone who can give them an idea of what the future could be.

“We want to bring them a new environment – a hope environment,” she said.

El Centro’s mentoring program, which was recently refunded through a CCUSA grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Justice, provides a positive adult-friendship to a child/youth with special emotional needs that would benefit from one-on-one activities outside their family. 

Mentors must be 18 and older and be willing to undergo a background check. El Centro is in need of at least 18 volunteers to guide children ages 9-18 for a minimum of 12 months. Mentors are asked to spend two hours a week with their mentee; for the first month, the two will meet at the El Centro building on South Broad Street in Trenton as they work to come up with a schedule that best meets their schedules.

The children’s parents, Pinto said, are grateful for the program. “They need help, and they know this will benefit their children.”

Pinto works diligently to pair volunteers with children who share similar interests, discussing with mentors what hobbies and activities their mentee may enjoy. For example, some of the children have never been to a mall, museum or the movies. Oftentimes this is because parents are overwhelmed with their jobs or because the children themselves must babysit their siblings while their parents are at work, leaving not much leisure time.

Heidi Amezquita, who works part time with El Centro, knows this all too well. Having served as a mentor twice, both times to 13-year-old girls, she says often what children are lacking is simply someone to listen.

“Teenagers, especially, need someone to discuss important life issues with,” she said, explaining that she encouraged one of her mentees to think about college. The girl’s mother had never discussed the subject, since she herself had never gone.

Said Pinto, “You may never know what influence you can have on a person’s life.”

Pinto can trace her ministry at El Centro to a mentor-mentee relationship. As a 13-year-old girl in Guatemala, Pinto met a visiting Benedictine sister who helped her learn English. Fast-forward many years, and Pinto, now living in America, went to visit her mentor-friend, Sister Stephanie, who was living in Minnesota. During the visit, Sister Stephanie mentioned she needed help raising money for Pinto’s childhood school library in Guatemala. After lending a hand, Pinto returned to Trenton with an energetic drive to help others.

“Sometimes it’s through a mentor that you end up doing things you never imagined,” she said. 

In 2002, Pinto began volunteering with El Centro and the after-school program. During an informational trip with the children to Lawrenceville’s Rider University, Pinto began to consider that maybe she, too, could benefit from its classes. She graduated in 2006, which led to her current position.

“Helping other people helps yourself,” she said with a smile.

Looking back on her own experience – and with an eye on the future – Pinto is hopeful that faithful from the Diocese of Trenton will consider volunteering. “It’s exciting for a mentor to think that you brought a whole new world to a child.”