Organization provides mentors for at-risk young people

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By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer

Ken Martinet, the president and CEO of Catholic Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles County, was honored recently for his 26 years of service to the organization.

Martinet said he’s “loved every minute of it.”

“Being of service and working with an organization like this is in my DNA,” said Martinet, a married father of three. “My parents were very inspiring. My mother was a Latina and my father was Creole from New Orleans. It was instilled in me from an early age to help people have a chance in life. 

“I learned about social justice. That was a big aspect of my education. I always wanted to turn all of that into an opportunity to pay it forward,” Martinet added.

Martinet, who turns 80 in August, has had several careers, but calls his current role “The most fulfilling.”

“The real attraction is to give back and pay it forward,” he said. “I have a great staff, some of whom have been here longer than me. We’ve had thousands of kids we’ve helped and matched with volunteers. Having a mentor in a child’s life is an important thing for them while they are trying to navigate into adult life.”

Founded in 1925, the vision of Catholic Big Brothers Big Sisters is to create a lasting, positive impact on youth by empowering them through mentoring to help them succeed in school and in life.

Its mission is to bring equity to low-income, underserved youth of all beliefs, backgrounds and identities, by providing strong, enduring, and professionally supported one-to-one mentoring relationships with caring adult mentor volunteers that inspire youth potential. The organization believes every child is born with potential and with a mentor they achieve milestones and reach long-term success.

The volunteers that work with the program are called bigs and the children they work with are called littles.

The bigs, are matched with littles who meet one-on-one from four to eight hours per month (at least two times per month) during the course of a minimum one-year period.

“They can do more, but we don’t want it to be overwhelming,” Martinet said. “We are very watchful about not getting too intimate. We don’t want any competition with their family life.”

Martinet said the organization, which operates on a $1 million annual budget through foundations, government grants and fundraisers, and is part of the Big Brothers Big Sister Federation and has a long history of working with youth facing adversity.

It serves between 700 and 800 kids annually. Each year approximately 300 to 400 young people have one-on-one mentoring matches. 

The organization assesses another 400 children and their families for services (and other social service referrals), and screens and trains 500 adults as potential mentors or skilled volunteers. Some of the services include providing health information, food, and rent supplements.

“The organization survived through the Depression and recessions,” Martinet said. “We have been working with bringing equity to our community ever since we started. We were started by Community Chest, which is now United Way. Back then it was for boys who had been incarcerated or were from broken families. We have, of course, since expanded.”

Martinet said most of the children who participate in the Big Brothers Big Sister program come from disadvantaged, underserved neighborhoods.

“All of the children come from not-so-good zip codes, underserved and under-resourced communities like Central and South Los Angeles, the San Gabriel Valley, and more, areas where opportunities to get in trouble is prevalent,” he said. “Most of our children come from single-parent homes, mostly with women as the head of household. 

“We want the children to have a good education. There is very little equity in the system and not enough funding. These children need someone in their life. That’s what we do.”

Some of the children that participate in the program are in the foster care system. About 70% are Latino, and 20% are African American. The organization added Big Sisters in 2004 and is now 50% boys and  girls.

Martinet noted that the organization doesn’t just serve Catholics.

“We were started by a Catholic,” he said. “We work with everyone including people who don’t have a religion.”

The organization, which recently received its eighth quality award in a row from the National Federation of Big Brothers Big Sisters, certifying that it is among the top 1 or 2% in the quality of the program, offers various programs. 

Each child is paired with a mentor/volunteer. The organization hopes to bring on more. They also hope to bring on more children. The need is so great, there are still children waiting to be paired.

Specific activities are determined by each mentoring pair and typically include museums, movies, help with homework, Dodger games, sports, playing in the park, hiking, outings for ice cream, help with chores and more.

“Sometimes it’s their first time going to a park, the beach or a ballgame,” Martinet said. “Thousands of children have gone through the program with a 100% high school graduation rate. Some go to college. That is a sense of achievement for us, knowing the child has a chance for a better life.”

There is also a workplace mentoring program, where young people are connected to opportunities to learn about various professions and trades. At the same time, generous executives and business people can cultivate a culture of corporate service by opening up their worksite offices and staff to the children they serve.

The children go to the worksite once a month to meet with their mentors to learn about the organization and participate in a curriculum that encourages academic achievement, life skills and professional development. Bigs and littles then meet one-on-one with each other for follow-up discussions.

The bulk of the program’s services are done in the community and not at schools.

“We used to do mentoring at schools, but not anymore,” Martinet said. “Today, the mentor picks children up at home and they go to the park, the library, a game, a show, or out to eat in the community. 

“We do stringent background checks on volunteers.” he added. “Social workers are in contact with them constantly. We have some matches who have stayed together for almost five years.”

Martinet is the biggest cheerleader for the organization. He considers what the organization does as an investment in both the children and the community.

“For every dollar invested in mentoring there is a return of $10 to the community, calculated on the reduction in violence, mental health and risky behavior,” he said.

Martinet, whose great uncle was Louis A Martinet, the first African-American graduate of Straight University Law School, now Dillard, said the Big Brother Big Sister model of mentoring has worked because of the human connection.

“Where else can you get a person in a child’s life — a kind of coach, teacher, medical watchdog, friend all wrapped up into one person?” he asked. “The mentor provides a good shoulder to cry on, if needed. That’s what we do when we ask for a volunteer. We want them to really be involved because we want these children to know someone cares. We want them to know they are important and that there are opportunities for them out there. 

“There is a saying, ‘you can’t be it unless you see it.’”

Making a Difference” is a weekly feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making a Difference” profile, send an email to

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at

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