Over the past two years, Julio Lopez and Roberto Longoria have become like family.
Longoria, 30, even gave 13-year-old Julio his dog, Albert, a year ago and the two frequently take him to run at the Whittier Narrows Recreation Area, giving the man and boy a chance to talk.
But they’re not blood relatives. The two are paired in the Big Brothers of Greater Los Angeles program, which finds adult men to befriend younger boys who have no male role models at home.
Big Brothers opened an office in East Los Angeles in March to sign up more Latino men for the large number of Latino boys who need Big Brothers, said Elsa Greenfield, a social worker and coordinator in charge of the Latino community and Spanish-speaking population.
One-third of the organization’s 300 6- to 12-year-olds waiting or recently matched are Latino, according to March figures.
But Latino men make up only 7% of the Big Brothers, Greenfield said.
“The need is there,” she said. “Ideally, we would like to match Latino boys with Latino men because they know their history, values and customs.”
Each boy’s mother also needs to feel comfortable with the Big Brother, who often plays a pivotal role in her son’s life.
Many times, the relationship affects performance in school and grades and improves attitudes, Greenfield said.
“After they have had this person consistently in their lives, you see the kids becoming happier and the moms are happier when their kids are happier,” she said.
When asked where his father is, Julio pursed his lips, looked down and shook his head. “I wouldn’t know him,” he said.
Julio’s parents separated before he was born. His older brother recently arrived from Mexico and has had to fill his time with school and adjusting to a new country.
So Julio has relied on Longoria, a deputy public defender in Orange County, to teach him about the world, take him places and, mostly, just to talk.
“He guides me,” Julio said. “For one, he tells me advice about problems at school, problems at home and what I need to do. He’s become sort of like my dad.”
For Longoria, the chance to become a part of Julio’s life has lessened the frustration of seeing so many young boys become a part of the juvenile justice system in which he works.
“I try to talk to them and ask if there is a father figure in their life. Most of the time, that is not the case,” said Longoria, who lives in Boyle Heights.
The two meet weekly and mostly just talk about school and life. Occasionally, they’ll see a movie, go to a flea market, see a Dodgers game or go to Magic Mountain.
Longoria takes it upon himself to ask how Julio is doing in school and wants Julio to talk to him about problems before they become a serious concern to his mother, Martha Esquivel, or his teachers at Griffith Middle School.
“I’m happy with their relationship,” Esquivel said. “He’s doing well and maturing with his Big Brother.”
The organization asks Big Brothers to commit to one year with their Little Brother, but many, such as Longoria and Julio, continue beyond that.
“It’s more of just spending time with your Little Brother and talking and finding out what’s going on, trying to find new ways to keep the relationship going. There’s all the give and take,” Longoria said.
Asked how long they believe their relationship will last, Longoria nudges Julio and says, “Forever, right? You’re stuck with me.”
The Big Brother office is at the East Los Angeles Skills Center, 3921 Selig Place. Because the new office is still being established, organizers ask interested people to call for an appointment: (213) 343-1607.