Position: Director of Graduate Support
School: San Miguel School
School District: Private
City, State: Providence, Rhode Island
About the Nominee: Manny Ortiz was nominated by a colleague, Frank Justin. As a boy growing up poor in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, Mr. Ortiz remembers how conditions changed from day to day. In his words, “Some days there was water, then the next day no water. Some days you would have electricity, some days no electricity.” After several years of social turmoil and political unrest in the Dominican Republic, his mother made the decision to return to the U.S. with the hopes of getting a better education for her children. When he was nine years old, Mr. Ortiz remembers arriving at JFK airport, stepping through the doors into a cold, biting winter wind and seeing a sea of yellow taxis. It was just like in the movies.
At school, Mr. Ortiz was struggling in third grade, both academically and socially, because of his lack of English. Initially, the school he attended did not have an ESL program. He was going through the motions of going to school but wasn’t understanding anything. “Let’s go back,” he would beg his mother, wishing for a return to the Dominican Republic. But she was resolute, encouraging her son that he could do it. Today, Mr. Ortiz credits his academic success to his mother for encouraging him in school.
Despite his lack of English, Mr. Ortiz demonstrated both promise and ability to Br. Lawrence, the school's director. Mr. Ortiz began his first year at San Miguel School in the fall of 2000. During the week, he never went out to play in the neighborhood after school. He had 4-5 hours of homework every night because he had to look up all the words in the dictionary to understand the assignment. Sometimes, there were words in the definition he didn’t understand, so he had to look those words up, too. It was a lot of work for him to get good grades.
Mr. Ortiz went on to attend La Salle Academy for high school, where he could not bring home anything less than A’s. His mother would not accept anything less. He became a member of the National Honor Society and gained admission to Providence College with a full scholarship. When he told his mother he was as going to Providence College (PC) for free, she cried.
When he arrived at PC, his deeply rooted value system, gained from his seven years of Lasallian education, led him to create the Step-Up Mentoring Program for middle-schoolers. The intent of Step-Up was to create a mentoring program that would plant the seeds of a college education into the impressionable minds of young middle-school students. Its goal was to begin a transition from middle-school to high school that would eventually lead to college. In Mr. Ortiz’s words, “The idea was to show (students) a roadmap. This is what you need to do, and you can do it. It was a change in attitude from ‘If I go to college, to when I go to college.’”
His mentoring program was so successful and inspirational that PC awarded him the Outstanding Service Project in 2009. The PC Alumni Association also awarded him the “Leaving a Legacy” Award in 2011.
After graduation, Mr. Ortiz became a Clinical Research Assistant at RI Hospital hoping to one day follow to in his mother’s footsteps. At the end of his third year at RI Hospital in 2014, Br. Lawrence offered him the newly created position as full-time Director of Graduate Support of San Miguel School.
Mr. Ortiz was the most highly qualified person for the role simply because he had come through the system himself. He was a living example of what the power of education can accomplish. In his first year, Mr. Ortiz worked long hours to put a system in place that could provide assistance to graduates, begin the transition of eighth graders to high school and deal with the complex issues of financial aid to those students who qualified, which was everyone.
He also established the Academic Resource Center, which connects San Miguel grads attending high school with extra tutoring in language, science and math. The Academic Resource Center is an after-school program where graduates get extra help in academics as well as organization and planning skills. Tutors at the Center are Bachelor’s level college graduates. All of this adds up to a lot of long days for Mr. Ortiz, and he continues to play a vital role in helping to touch hearts and transform lives.
When asked what might have become of him if he hadn’t been fortunate enough to come to San Miguel, he paused and said “Honestly I don’t know. There were a lot of things in the neighborhood that could have easily gone wrong. I can’t picture my life today without the formation and values I received at San Miguel. I don’t think my record would be clean. I would not have been able to enjoy the things in life I am most proud of today: being a home owner, and being a good provider for my wife and my young daughter, Nellie Maria.”
The work Mr. Ortiz has put in to help students makes him a LifeChanger in the San Miguel School community.