Putting family first
Before Roberto was born, his father moved their family from Puerto Rico to Hightstown. But tragedy struck there: Roberto’s older brother died of pneumonia at just 2 years old. Reeling from that loss, the Hernandez family returned to Puerto Rico for a few years, returning to the United States when Roberto was 10 years old. Young Roberto acted as a translator for his household as he was able to understand both Spanish and English.
Roberto’s father Catalino found work in a bumper factory in Trenton and worked hard to provide for his family. When describing his childhood, Roberto grows emotional in remembering the contempt and mistreatment endured by his father, who struggled with English. But Catalino never responded to the injustice with anger and maintained an attitude of respect, an example Roberto has faithfully followed.
Making a change for the Latino community
After witnessing firsthand the hardship of being a stranger in a strange land, Roberto founded El Centro with Fran Dolan, Dan Lundy and Monsignor Toomey in 1999 to be a beacon of hope for immigrants so that they don’t suffer the same exploitation his father did. It is a resource that provides extensive services for greater Mercer County’s Latino community.
Most programs are offered free of charge and include job training, food assistance, GED and ESL classes, citizenship and computer classes, and summer camps along with after school-programs for children. El Centro also provides affordable legal assistance to help in the citizenship and naturalization processes. El Centro’s work is intended to help immigrants overcome language barriers and build independence and self-sufficiency.
“I prefer to teach families to fish, rather than give them a fish, so at the end of the day they have achieved an element of success that can be implemented in other parts of their lives,” Roberto said.
That shows in his hands-on approach to helping anyone who walks through the doors.
Serving through sports
If it were 1976, you would probably be able to find Roberto on the basketball court. While attending The College of New Jersey (then known as Trenton State College), Roberto competed on the college basketball team. After graduating, he represented his home country on the Puerto Rican National Team for Baloncesto Superior Nacional.
Today, he continues his athletic endeavors through coaching. He has coached basketball for 15 years at the YMCA and is a swimming coach for a Special Olympics team called The Sailfish. His athletes range in age from 9 years old to young adults, and they inspire him every day. “I could have the longest, most frustrating day and The Sailfish make me smile instantly. They are full of unconditional love,” Roberto said.
Sports led Roberto to one of his first service projects. He played against Rick Porth who competed for Yale University. The two bonded over basketball and later reconnected in 1978 to found Anchor House with their friend Art Ball. Anchor House serves as a shelter for homeless and runaway youth.
His pride and joy
When asked where he finds his energy, Roberto said, “My family is my strength.” His wife of 38 years (pictured at beginning) has supported Roberto every step of the way. The couple has three sons (pictured left): The oldest, Carlos, is an attorney; Alejandro works as an actor (you may have seen him as Nurse Casey on New Amsterdam); and the youngest, Roberto, is a swimming champion who won the gold medal at the Special Olympics. A window in Roberto’s office serves as a beautiful shrine to his family, and he beams when he shares stories about them.
Meeting on common ground
For Roberto, the main ingredient behind his efforts is unity. “Looking at commonality instead of differences is the secret to success,” he said.
In such a divided society, we can all learn something from this powerful sentiment.
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For more information: Trish Reilly, Catholic Charities communications, firstname.lastname@example.org or (609) 394-5181, ext. 1146.
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