Luis Fernando Bensimón, a mentor for homeless children in Houston

Luis Fernando Bensimón has always adored children and, even though he has a daughter who works as a graphic designer in Los Angeles, he has always dreamed of “having a family large enough for a volleyball team.” After his only daughter moved away from home, the engineer, a projects and facilities team leader at Repsol in Houston, Texas, decided to help the neediest little ones around him.

“I’ve always loved children and, as a young man living in Río de Janeiro, my native city, I did volunteer work with poor children in a favela,” recalls Luis, who has been working as a volunteer at Angel Reach, an NGO currently helping 50 children and young people from dysfunctional families, for several years. His work focuses on minors in search of foster homes, young adults living in shelters, and homeless young mothers and children, which account for more than a thousand people in Montgomery County, where Luis lives.

Initially, Luis helped Angel Reach in something as simple as moving the locale where the organization sells second-hand furniture and clothing. This first contact with the NGO led to the project that would change his life. “They suggested I become a mentor for David, a 19-year-old kid who had just finished secondary school, a brilliant kid who was kicked out of his house when he was 14 and was living on the street.” Delighted, Luis accepted the challenge.

The two have been very close ever since. He and David often meet once a week. The young man explains his concerns, asks for advice, and even counsel on things like putting together a cover letter for a job offer; Luis Fernando has become his mentor and takes on the “role of a responsible adult the child can rely on, a source of inspiration, a role model.” Most of these kids have no parents, “and the adults these kids came in contact with were the ones who abandoned or mistreated them,” so they lack mature role models they can turn to for knowledge and wisdom. “Come rain or shine, we will be there for them, and we need for them to understand they have someone they can count on, someone reliable, a safe harbor they can turn to,” the mentor says.

David is enrolled at a General College, where he is combining his studies with two jobs — one as a waiter and the other at an insurance company. His goal is to major in International Relations at the nearby University of Austin, in Texas, so as not to move too far from home. In his free time, he also shares his interest in Japanese culture with other children at a club he founded, teaching them Japanese.

Like the other mentors, Luis has had to earn the trust of the young people he works with, a difficult task, as these have no other adult role model in their environments. “It doesn’t happen quickly. You have to earn their trust and that isn’t easy,” Luis admits. As a mentor, he received an introductory course offered by Angel Reach, aimed at building the skills needed for this work. Today, the engineer also trains new mentors, teaching them that they must never ask “the kids what their former life was like, or what happened to their father or mother. We’re not interested in any of that, the past is the past, we only care about their future.

Through Fundación Repsol’s More than words program, which selects social integration projects presented by employees, shareholders, distributors, and clients, Angel Reach has received financial support to organize two yearly events. One of them, held in 2017, consisted in taking 25 kids to Houston’s Museum of Natural Sciences, a beautiful experience for Luis Fernando, who had submitted the project.  It happened near the end of the day, when “a woman, I don’t recall if she was the older sister or grandmother of two kids who are with us, put a letter in my pocket. I didn’t get a chance to read it then because we had to get the kids in the bus. When I finally read it back home, I discovered it was absolutely fascinating.”

In her note, she told the mentor she “was very grateful to Repsol and its people, because never in her life had she been close to a museum, or the city center for that matter, and she’d never even seen the buildings there. She told me she would remember the time she got that opportunity for the rest of her life.” Luis Fernando photocopied the letter and distributed it among his colleagues at work, and, thanks to his actions, some of them have also become volunteers at Angel Reach. It is an organization one can collaborate with as a mentor, an academic tutor, a driving instructor, or job counselor for young people, among other things.

Another experience this year that Luis fondly remembers happened on the 4th of July, when they took the kids to a park to watch the fireworks and enjoy the live music for Independence Day. “At the end of the night, a 17-year-old girl approached me with teary eyes because the last time she’d seen fireworks had been when she was a little girl, on New Year’s Eve, at home with her parents, and she hadn’t seen any since. She told me she’d forgotten how beautiful they were, and it moved me very much.

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