by lisa pierpont | February 24, 2014 | People
From jail to the classroom, Lino Sanchez uses his life story and his nonprofit, Urban Achievers, to give troubled kids a new start.
Urban Achievers founder Lino Sanchez holds a copy of Native Son, the book that changed his life.
First you see the suit, the trucker hat, and the smile. Then you see the eyes of Lino Sanchez. They are brown, a deep, rich mahogany that stare at you straight, holding shadows that tell you they have seen things. Sanchez’s eyes have seen the glinting edge of a switchblade, a bloody sidewalk, and graffiti on the walls of a prison cell. They have seen fists swinging at his face from people who were supposed to love him, and they have seen tears. Many, many tears.
As Sanchez stands in front of a classroom at the Epiphany School in Dorchester, though, he is the voice of authority, credibility, and respect. Authority because he is the dean of students at the school and the founder of Urban Achievers, a nonprofit organization for troubled kids and families in underserved communities. Credibility because he lived the same life as those troubled kids. And anyone would respect Sanchez after what he’s been through and where he is now.
Sanchez, here at age 5, grew up surrounded by violence.
“I had a very tough childhood,” says Sanchez, who grew up in Dorchester. “I was beaten up by my stepfather pretty much every day.” School was no joyride either. “I was angry. I got into fights. I got kicked out of half a dozen city schools.” When Sanchez turned 13, he left home and school for good. He started selling drugs, earning enough money to rent a room at the Holiday Inn in Brookline. At age 17 he was arrested for attempted murder and thrown in jail. One after the other—from Nashua Street Jail to Walpole State Prison—Sanchez bounced around for five years.
His last stint, at MCI Shirley, held a surprise. He shared a cell with a man named “Sam” [whose name has been changed to protect his privacy], who was serving time for a white-collar crime. Sam was unlike anyone Sanchez had met before: He was educated, thoughtful, and spent his free time reading. “I looked at him and thought, What a nerd,” Sanchez says. “But he had a confidence about him that I liked.” In spite of his brush with the law, Sam was ambitious and headed toward a career in medicine. He also possessed a mentoring streak, having tutored kids since he was 13 years old. He saw something special in Sanchez. “He had a raw wisdom and compelling curiosity,” Sam recalls. “He struck me as a very caring soul with an innate sense of humanity. I immediately recognized that he would benefit from some encouragement.” So one day, Sam threw his cellmate a book. “You know, you’re a smart kid,” he told Sanchez. “You’re wasting your life. You should read this book.” The novel was Richard Wright’s Native Son, which traces the journey of a young African-American boy and the choices he makes in life. It does not end well. Sanchez read the book—his first ever—from cover to cover. When he was finished, he read another book, followed by another. Then he decided to change his life.
Lino Sanchez smiles with his wife and two of his six children at Gillette Stadium last year.
By the time he was released from prison in 1993, Sanchez had earned his high school GED and an acceptance letter to attend the University of Massachusetts. Over the next decade, he held odd jobs, worked at the Pine Street Inn, a homeless shelter on Harrison Street, and volunteered as a basketball coach at the Epiphany School in Dorchester, where he was eventually hired as the athletic director. In 2009, Sanchez founded Urban Achievers, a nonprofit devoted to identifying troubled kids and helping them turn right, instead of left. Sanchez was on a crusade to teach kids not to do what he did. The organization, based out of the Epiphany School, where Sanchez is now the dean of students, provides education, support, and counseling for individuals and their families after school and during the summer. The $40,000 annual budget is privately funded by supporters.
“We have what we call academies in things like cooking, photography, fitness, and finances to teach kids other skills,” says Sanchez, who oversees the programs at Urban Achievers and counsels kids and their families. Boston Police officers offer regular sessions on gang intervention and bullying prevention, while community leaders like Dr. Peter L. Slavin, president of Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, provide support. “I am particularly attracted to the health and fitness component,” Slavin says. “This program is key not only to the health of these children, but to society as a whole.”
Lino Sanchez with his grandfather at age 15, when he was already out of school and having run-ins with the law.
On March 29 Urban Achievers will host a reception at the Epiphany School to recruit volunteers to help tutor, hold workshops, secure funding, and serve as mentors. “Urban Achievers is only as successful as the like-minded volunteers who devote their time and energy to help serve the children within the program,” says Sanchez. “We are teaching kids life skills. It’s a journey toward self-sufficiency.”
One thirteen-year-old we spoke with has started on this journey thanks to Sanchez. “I was in the gym when Lino came over and said, ‘You need to be in this program,’” the eighth grader recalls. “I said, ‘What’s in it for me?’ He replied, ‘A life!’ He was serious about it.” Rezendes, who has now been an Urban Achiever for four years, is the oldest of four boys, each from a different father. “One of the most important things I get from this program is a constant reality check. I often get myself in trouble, but Lino and Urban Achievers never give up on me. He holds me accountable, and I honestly hate that because I feel like I can’t do whatever I want. I know it’s for the best, though, so I suck it up. They are my family.”
Lino Sanchez receiving his diploma at his college graduation, with sons, in 2013.
During the past four years, Urban Achievers has helped some 200 kids, from fifth grade through high school, and trained more than 100 mentors. Sanchez says that all of the UA graduates in 2013 were accepted with scholarships to competitive high schools. “I can spot a kid who needs us right away. It’s just a way of being. It’s a different language.” Poor hygiene, hunger, anger, and sadness are some of the red flags Sanchez looks for. “I think to myself, I know that kid. That was me.”
Not anymore. Now married with six children, Sanchez feels like a different man—but not too different. “I keep my old life in the forefront of my mind,” he says. Once a month he has lunch with his old cellmate Sam, who now practices as a doctor. “He has overcome a lot,” says Sam, “and, like myself, is a living example that everyone has good inside themselves and a purpose in life.” Sanchez considers his transformation to be part luck (“If I hadn’t met Sam, I’m not sure my life would have turned out this way”) and part street smarts. “That’s what all kids in poverty have—survival skills. I’m just taking those skills and teaching my kids how to apply them in a positive way.” For Sanchez, the mission is more than fulfilling—it is personal. “When they succeed, I succeed.” And with that, Sanchez’s eyes light up.
photography courtesy of lino sanchez; ken richardson (sanchez)
July 17, 2017