Robinson Gardens Youth Group
Turning a life around, against the odds
Marty Burgos and Juan Hernandez made youth a winding road full of twists and turns that hinted of two failed lives in the making.
They got into fights with others. They skipped classes at Putnam Vocational Technical High School. They earned many a poor grade on their quarterly report cards. In Burgos’ case, it took six years to graduate.
But today, they stand testament to perseverance, and what it means to make a personal commitment to want do better and make changes.
At 45, Hernandez has a PhD in leadership, helps to run a $100 million business, and teaches at three area colleges. Not far behind him in age at 44, Burgos is now a lieutenant in the Springfield Fire Department.
Both shared their stories – some harrowing – to Springfield Housing Authority’s Robinson Gardens Youth Group, where teens audibly gasped as they discovered two tales of giving in, and then standing up, to peer pressure. Each man also described how he turned himself around, in spite of the odds that were stacking against them by the year.
“I was a bad apple – all I did was fight when I was your age. I didn’t take school seriously for a long time,” admitted Burgos.
“But for a guy who did six years in high school to being a lieutenant in the Fire Department, you can tell something good happened along the way,” he said.
Burgos credits his turnaround, in part, to a leadership role he had when he was elected president of his senior class at Putnam. That, and taking martial arts classes as a means to avoid fighting, something he continued for 17 years.
Studying carpentry at Putnam also helped. He joined a local union right after graduation, and found steady work in a trade he loved. He also won a union scholarship to Springfield Technical Community College, which in turn lead to a Civil Service exam that lead him to the Springfield Fire Department – after he scored at the very top.
Hernandez also seemed drawn to trouble. He was in and out of foster homes, and “I grew up fighting,” he told the teens. At age 14 he was in a knife fight that left three scars on his back and another on his hip. He was also kicked out of Putnam for bringing a gun to school, but was allowed back in.
“That mentality – that’s the way I was running,” Hernandez said.
It was his decision to join the wrestling team at Putnam that turned things around for him. He learned focus and skill, two qualities he has been able to apply elsewhere in his life over the years.
“I absolutely loved wrestling,” Hernandez explained.
And school became more than a priority – he ate up formal learning, studying electrical at Putnam, working right out of high school, and continuing on, first at STCC, then at Cambridge College and finally, at Capella University, where he earned his doctorate. That higher education journey took him 17 years of hard work and commitment.
Along the way, Hernandez married and had five children. He works at PlastiPac Packaging, located in East Longmeadow.
Both Burgos and Hernandez had similar advice to the Robinson Gardens youth.
“You’ve got to think about your choices, now,” Burgos said. “Make a path for yourself, and stick to it. Any time you stray from that path, you delay getting to where you want to be.”
Hernandez said, “You don’t need a college degree to push forward. What you need is a commitment to know what you want to do, and the determination to better yourself.”
Teens said the visit by Burgos and Hernandez made an impact.
“I thought the whole thing was very inspiring,” said Karmani Landron, who is 14 and just finishing up 8th grade at the Zanetti Montessori Magnet School.
“They chose the wrong paths at first, but then they got to high school and really got themselves together. They turned themselves around,” she said.
Her sister Katherine Landron, 17, agreed.
“They were very inspirational,” said the junior at Springfield Conservatory of the Arts. “These two guys came from basically nothing, and made themselves into some good. They had a reality check, and thought hard about the future.”
Central High School ninth grader Lenia Belnavis said Burgos and Hernandez made her think hard.
“They made me think about my own life, and how to focus on what I want. I want to be successful, to grow up and have a good job,” she said.
Christopher Ortiz, who is president of the Youth Group, said visitors like Burgos and Hernandez are always a good thing.
“They made all of us think about setting a goal for ourselves, and not straying off the path to get there,” said Ortiz, who is 15 and a freshman at Central High School. “They made us realize that we want to stay focused.”
SHA Youth Engagement Coordinator Jimmie Mitchell brings in guest speakers weekly to his after-school sessions with the teens at Robinson Gardens. He said these two were perfect because of how they handled their tough times.
“They were my students at Putnam so I remember them from those days,” said Mitchell, who is a retired counselor from the school on State Street. “I loved that they were able to share how they turned their lives around.”
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