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Sunday, March 3, 2024
March 3, 2024

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When he charted a path opposite his friends, a ‘big brother’ could have helped

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Alejandro Quintana could have used someone, an older brother perhaps, to lean on when he struggled in high school.

Quintana, now 30, knew back then that he wasn’t on the path to college. His grades weren’t the best. And besides, he didn’t want to take on the mountain of debt that would come with being a college student.

It took him nearly a decade — with several jobs, and a stint in the Army in between — to find his way back to doing something he’d always enjoyed as a teenager: helping his dad run the family’s small landscaping business.

Now, with hindsight and a desire to be the kind of mentor he wishes he’d had, Quintana volunteers as a mentor for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound, one of 13 agencies that benefit from reader donations to The Seattle Times’ annual Fund for Those in Need.

The agency pairs youth with adult mentors who promise to show up. Adults like Quintana offer friendship, consistency and a compassionate ear. The program is free and serves kids ages 6 to 18 who face systemic barriers because of their race or socioeconomic class, or other challenges in school, at home or with the criminal legal system.

“When I was a kid I just didn’t have anyone there … a big brother that I could have leaned on about problems in school,” Quintana said. “I just thought it would be really cool to be able to provide that for someone.”

The agency has for years struggled to find enough mentors who match the demographics of the kids who enroll — nearly 70% are Black, Indigenous or other youth of color.

And recently, more youth in the program have expressed an interest in careers in trades.

But mentors like Quintana — whose parents are immigrants from Mexico and who now owns and runs his father’s former landscaping company — have been tough to recruit, agency officials say.

Just 25% of the agency’s mentors are BIPOC men, said Alonda Williams, the agency’s CEO.

“We’ve done lots of research to try to understand the barriers with men, and BIPOC men in particular,” she said. “There is this perception that they’re not enough. That could not be further from the truth. Just as you are, you are enough.”

Taking ownership

Quintana was raised by hard workers. His mom was a loyal employee at the same medical equipment company for more than three decades and his dad worked a full-time construction job while running a landscaping company on the side.

Around the time he turned 12, Quintana started putting up door hangers advertising his dad’s business. He’d also tag along on jobs to help translate for his father, who doesn’t speak English fluently.

As a student at Interlake High School, Quintana excelled in woodworking class and physical education. But the idea of a profession in the trades wasn’t on his radar; at that time, he started thinking about becoming a police officer. And his parents were stretched thin by their jobs — too busy to help Quintana prepare for life after high school, he said. Quintana has an older sister, but she was busy with work and school. He felt adrift as he watched his friends apply to college.

Signing up for thousands of dollars in debt didn’t appeal to him. He knew his family couldn’t afford tuition. When he got a call from an Army recruiter, he learned that he could start making money, and eventually get college paid for if he decided he wanted to go.

He did a nine-month tour in Afghanistan before leaving the Army, then bopped between a few jobs before returning to the familiarity of working with his dad. He realized the landscaping business’ potential and helped grow the company before taking it over about seven years ago.

Mowing, trimming, building retaining walls: It’s work that feels good and makes perfect sense for Quintana, who’s always loved being outdoors. He’s an ultramarathoner, a soccer “fanatic” and completed the Pacific Crest Trail in 2020, he said. The money in landscaping is good, too, he added.

That feeling he had when he was younger — that his friends were making different choices than he was — still bubbles up now and then. “There’s a stigma around working in the trades,” he said, noting that many of his friends have jobs in tech. But like his dad, who was “very satisfied” with his work as a tradesman, Quintana said he’s happy with how things have turned out.

Honorable path

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound has a tradition of empowering youth, Williams said, and as more kids express interest in trade professions like construction and barbering, the agency is trying to meet demand.

“We really seek to do that,” Williams said. “Just to make sure we’re representing young people and representing the preferences of the parents or even the youth themselves.”

Brian Thomas, a former Big Brother and a current donor who helped found a local boat building company in the 1980s, said that, realistically, trade professions come with long, physically intensive hours that leave little time for volunteering. That could be part of the reason the program has had trouble attracting more mentors in these professions, he said.

But societal views on the value of trade work may also play a role. Getting healthy, supportive guidance through mentorship programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters could help youth interested in the trades see their futures more positively, he said.

“We have to be able to talk about it as being a really well-regarded, praiseworthy, honorable path to choose to be in the trades,” he said. “Because I believe it is, but society doesn’t sell it that way to youth.”

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound has served about 1,100 youths so far in 2023 but has a big backlog who need a match: about 601 youths are waiting for a mentor. The agency has a history of working with industry — it has a partnership with Amazon — and is now reaching out to labor unions and a local construction company in hopes of building an apprenticeship program, Williams said.

Quintana says that skills he’s learned as a tradesman, like personal responsibility and trust, come up often in his relationship with his Big Brothers Big Sisters “Little,” a 15-year-old who is adopted.

“I can be there for him like I wanted there to be someone for me when I was a kid,” he said. “It just feels good. It feels right.”

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