In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re celebrating Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) Volunteer Rob Ortega for his exceptional work SHOWING UP for Hispanic foster youth. Read on to learn how his heritage and understanding of Hispanic culture have allowed him to deepen his connections and form strong relationships with his foster youth.
CASA Volunteer: Rob Ortega (Rawb Ohr-Tay-Guh), he/him/his
Years of Service with Child Advocates of Silicon Valley: 3
Number of Children Served: 2
For many of our CASAs, finding Child Advocates is a stroke of luck—they happen to see an ad online or they overhear a colleague discussing the agency at work. For Rob, however, finding our CASA Program didn’t happen by chance—he went looking for it.
“I’ve always had that mindset to give back, so I was searching for something where I could work one-on-one,” he says. “I wanted something where I could make an impact and see that impact.”
His search ultimately led him to Child Advocates, and as Rob recalls, the discovery immediately felt like a fit, a sentiment that only grew stronger with time.
Roughly half of all foster children experience four or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). These come in a multitude of forms but include parent separation/divorce, substance abuse, caregiver incarceration, violence in the home, physical abuse and emotional neglect to name a few. CASAs learn about ACEs and their effects during pre-service training, and it was during one of these discussions that Rob had a revelation.
“I remember going through the exercise and thinking, ‘Wow—I experienced over half of these,’” he shares. “Growing up, it was very challenging. We had a ton of family members and had to move to a bunch of places. Our family struggled, but to me, that’s just how I grew up. I‘d never seen it from that perspective, so going through the trainings and hearing certain stories, I felt like I shared those experiences. That motivated me.”
As an engineer, Rob is used to living in a world of numbers. He looks at things systematically, approaching everything with logic, so in many ways, becoming a CASA was a way to challenge that way of thinking. He knew it would push him outside of his comfort zone and provide an opportunity to explore more social-emotional literacy.
“This is something I feel like I was almost born to do,” he says. “I don’t want other kids to go through these experiences, and I thought, ‘I can make a difference in someone’s life. I can connect with them, share stuff I’ve gone through and try to understand them and guide them.’ That’s why I chose to become a CASA.”
SPEAKING THEIR LANGUAGE
From the very beginning, Rob knew he wanted to work with older children. He had no concerns about connecting with teenage youth and immediately took on an adolescent who he’s worked with for three years, sticking with the case even after taking on a second teen just last year.
“Their cases are definitely a lot more challenging, because in many instances these kids needed support 10 years ago,” he says. “But I’m okay in tough situations. With the way I grew up, I can handle intensity.”
With five siblings of his own, Rob is no stranger to life’s curveballs and the impact such challenges can have on families.
“A lot of the things they’ve gone through have nothing to do with them—it’s all the situation they’ve been raised in,” he explains. “With some of the foster youth I support, I almost see it as a mirror of how I grew up. That’s why I want to be there to try to support them. Ensuring that they have someone who’s experienced similar things is a huge benefit. Luckily I had one parent, but in many of these cases, these kids don’t have either parent there to support them.”
The deep connections Rob has built with his foster youth extend far deeper than just the similarities he sees in their childhoods, however.
“I think being Mexican allows me to connect better with them,” he says. “Communication has been really big. One foster youth has family members who only speak Spanish. When I go over, I’m able to talk to them. My foster youth sees that. Knowing that his family is comfortable speaking with me, makes him more comfortable with me.”
In contrast, Rob has witnessed the challenges language barriers can create when CASAs and service providers are unable to communicate with families, and he realizes that unfortunately, this directly impacts the extent to which a foster child’s team can provide sufficient support. In addition to being bilingual, Rob knows his heritage plays a pivotal role in allaying his youths’ social anxieties—having similar looks safeguards them from potential discomfort while out in the community.
“Even just being in social situations, it makes it more comfortable for the youth,” Rob explains. “They basically look like my younger brothers.”
As an example, Rob recounts a cooking class he took with one foster youth, sharing that the instructor and other participants assumed the pair were related, even going so far as to comment how nice it was to see family members enjoying the experience together.
“That conversation, even though it was simple, could have made the situation awkward,” Rob says. “The fact that I look like him makes it easy when we go out—people don’t stare.”
The rate at which Hispanic foster children enter foster care is six times higher than that of non-Hispanic white children, and currently, almost 50% of the children on our waitlist need a CASA who identifies as Hispanic or speaks Spanish. While there is no doubt that CASAs of all backgrounds and ages have the ability to positively impact these children, it is also known that when children see themselves in their mentors—their heritage, their language, their culture—they see possibilities in a different way.
“As an engineer, I always think about things [in numbers], and statistically I would say there’s probably better outcomes when youth match pretty well with the CASA,” Rob says. “That’s not to say it’s bad if [there isn’t that alignment], but it’s more challenging, and I think it puts a lot more stress on the CASA to try to support them in the ways they need. I’m not saying it can’t be done, it just makes it harder, and the probability of success decreases. It’s easier for a CASA to blend in if they are similar to the youth and have similar experiences.”
One of the most important tools Rob has worked to equip his foster youth with is the confidence to utilize their voices. He is teaching them to use the resources and systems at their disposal as effectively as possible and makes it a point to ensure they have consistent opportunities to be heard. He makes it clear that speaking out does not always guarantee your preferred outcome, but this does not make your thoughts or wishes any less important—you can and should advocate for yourself regardless. This is a lesson Rob has also worked to keep in mind himself, knowing there is only so much within his control.
“Both of the foster kids I work with don’t like to open up. But being there over time, I’ve seen them become more willing to say things they haven’t said before,” he says. “In many cases, kids succeed due to the environment around them, and although we’re helping the foster youth, it’s difficult to also support their environment. And that’s really what needs to be strong in order for them to be successful. I can support my foster youth as best as I can, but there are things outside of my control, and those are the things I need to go right in order for the kid to succeed. That’s one of the things I’ve learned: even though I try to do my best, there are other factors in the case that are just out of my control, and it’s difficult to influence those things and make them go in a particular direction.”
Reflecting on the power of representation, Rob is vehement as he talks about the importance of diversity and creating opportunities for exposure to other cultures. Many would say that what makes the CASA Program so successful is its ability to bring together children and adults from vastly different walks of life, and when asked, Rob says he’s in agreement.
He sees this when he takes his foster youth to agency-hosted events, touting that these gatherings create opportunities for his youth to build connections with other caring adults as well as peers who are undergoing similar experiences.
“At one of the events, my foster youth actually saw one of his friends from school. He didn’t realize until then that she was also in foster care.”
This was a valuable moment for his foster youth and an important reminder that you can never be sure what someone’s life might look like outside of what they allow others to see. In Rob’s opinion, supporting children culturally and helping them build relationships outside of their immediate communities do not need to be mutually exclusive—we can pair foster youth with CASAs who speak their language and are culturally aligned while also nurturing a willingness to learn about and from others whose backgrounds may be very different.
Representation matters. Juntos, we can SHOW UP, STAND UP and LIFT UP every Hispanic foster youth in Silicon Valley.
Movie Recommendation(s): John Wick series
Book Recommendation(s): Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson
Band Currently on Repeat: Dance Gavin Dance (from Sacramento!)
Favorite Type of Food: Mexican
Favorite Place: Anywhere with mountains
Favorite Hobbies: Mountain biking and video games
Support Foster Youth Today
Here are just a few of the ways you can SHOW UP for foster youth this month:
- Shop for a cause and enjoy the ultimate brunch experience at Passion, Fashion & Everything Bold. Sponsorship opportunities and tickets are available for purchase now.
- Support our CASA Program and invest in our foster youth with a financial contribution. If your company offers donation matching, visit Double the Donation.
- Become a Corporate Champion by sponsoring an activity or one of our fundraising events. Email us at email@example.com to learn how your company can be a part of the solution for foster kids.