Challenging childhood prompts probation officer to give back

In this week’s “I Am HISD, which features district students, graduates, employees, volunteers, and other team members, probation officer Juan Sorto talks about what prompted him to become a member of HISD’s Volunteers in Public Schools, why he is so passionate about working with students in the North Forest area, and who inspired him to reach for greatness as a child.IAH_JuanSorto_200

You approached HISD several years ago with a very specific request: to volunteer in schools that used to be part of North Forest ISD. Why was serving students in that part of town so important to you?

I moved to the North Forest area in 2001, and I still live there today. It has a lot of students who are in the same situation I was as a kid. They are growing up in the same condition—poverty. I was raised by a single mother who didn’t know any English and barely finished the second grade, and I was the first person in my family to graduate from high school and go to college. When I finally reached a level where I was stable in life and had a disposable income, I wanted to get more involved with kids who were struggling themselves but maybe didn’t know how to succeed.

So far, you have served both as a mentor to freshmen at North Forest High School and as a Real Men Read volunteer at Shadydale Elementary School. Can you share a few highlights?

The experience at the high school was fantastic, and I enjoyed every minute of it. I was able to introduce a few students to things that they had never been exposed to, such as Vietnamese and Italian food. When I brought them take-out from the Olive Garden one time, they were in deep shock. They had never tasted spaghetti in that form before and didn’t know what croutons were. I had to show them.

I really loved my experience at Shadydale, too. That first year, I worked individually with two students, but last year, I was reading to the entire class. I’ve also been working closely with Ms. Quintana and Ms. Bastias to motivate kids to continue to try hard and push forward. It is super special to be able to contribute to the lives of these kids. I feel like I am fulfilling a calling to give back.

Did you have a mentor when you were a child who helped or inspired you?

Growing up, I had a collection of people I wanted to be like. In eleventh and twelfth grades, I did co-op, which allows you to gain work experience while still in high school. That teacher was instrumental. She took a group of us to dinner at Spindletop, a restaurant that rotates on top of a building. That experience was unique and changed my makeup of things. That’s what I try to do for students, to start opening their eyes to something much bigger.

You currently serve as a probation officer with the Harris County Community Supervision and Corrections Department. Is one of the reasons you volunteer now with underprivileged youth so that you won’t encounter any of them later on in your day job?

Yes. I could have been anywhere else other than where I am now. My mother worked nights, and I had to take care of my little sister. I wasn’t a straight-A student at all, either. I never made it to the honor roll. When I look back at my personal journey, I see a lot of struggle. And I am blessed not to be one of the ones who report to me now.

Would you recommend volunteering in HISD to other people?

Definitely. I am having a great time. There’s a level of satisfaction you get from it that cannot be explained. I would encourage anyone looking for a way to get involved to be a part of this.