By Frank Portillo
After living a closeted life in foster youth, student worker Jaci Cortez now assists others as part of the Dream Resource Center staff.
Her biological mother is an undocumented citizen from Guatemala and was deported for drug charges when Cortez was 4. Since she was born in the U.S., she was placed in foster care.
At age 5, she was adopted by a family, but ran away at 13 and was back into the system by her 14th birthday, which was celebrated in foster care.
In the middle of running away, Cortez began experimenting with different drugs and cites her drug abuse and negative actions because of no proper role model to guide her.
“Before (I was) 14, I hated foster care. But I realized that without it, I would’ve ended up a lot worse,” Cortez said. As a result, 14 is her favorite number because of the moment of realization that she went through at that age.
When she was 15, Cortez joined a gang. Her gang life, however, was brief after the leader of the gang forced Cortez to leave. She said the leader didn’t enforce the ritual where the entire gang brutally beats the kicked out member that sometimes results in death.
“I wanted to feel like I belonged. … I didn’t stop fighting, but I stopped fighting for other people. I started to fight people who were bullying others or myself,” Cortez said. Instead of fighting, she wanted to polish her image and began to volunteer at various organizations dedicated to assistimg the homeless.
Cortez graduated from Warren High School in Downey in 2012.
“I was really rebellious, ditching class and not doing the best things when I was younger. I was never taught the importance of school, only in working hard,” Cortez said.
While bouncing from foster home to foster home, Cortez was forced to adapt to the family that she was with at the time.
Cortez said there would be times in which the family didn’t have the same progressive views as her. She said she was in 12 to 14 different foster homes.
“I was never able to be myself in a foster home until my last one,” Cortez said.
Cortez said she landed in a great situation with her last foster home because of the impact that her foster parent, Tania Cortez, had on the bettering of her life.
The impact was so huge that she legally changed her name to Jaci, which was a nickname given to her by one of her foster mothers, and adopted Tania Cortez’ last name as well.
During the first six months of living with the new family, Cortez said she was like an animal, only eating, sleeping and lacking etiquette.
“My last foster mom is who I consider my mom. She is my angel,” Cortez said.
She said her newly founded mother figure was the reason she wanted to get on a straight path. Being on a straight path involved attending school.
The day before Fall 2016 started, Cortez realized that she wanted to start school and found East Los Angeles College on Google Maps after searching for schools in the area.
“I knew that I wanted more than the minimum (wage) jobs … I realized the value in not only hard work, but surviving,” Cortez said.
While visiting the Financial Aid office, she was referred to Reyna Hernandez, who was the coordinator for both the Dream Resource Center and Cooperating Agencies Foster Youth Education Support.
Hernandez assisted Cortez by helping her sign up for the resources and showing her where she can obtain them.
She even told the student workers at the resource center to provide any assistance required.
The center creates kits dedicated to the homeless population and includes basic hygienic materials such as shampoo, toothpaste, lotion and deodorant.
After their first meeting, Cortez dedicated her free time to volunteering at the Dream Resource Center. Cortez, up to that point, had been unemployed for a year. When a position was available, Hernandez asked Cortez to become part of the student workers at the center.
“I was super excited. That’s why I’ve always tried to not only be the best student worker, but student (in general). I loved the way that they helped me and that’s the goal that I set for myself: to help any student that needs help,” Cortez said.
Since her time at the resource center, she has organized events such as the National Coming Out Day event.
Brenda Sanchez, who works at the resource center along with Cortez, said that the two met after being introduced to one another by Hernandez.
She was tasked with assisting Cortez and helping with the available resources for homeless students.
Sanchez realized that Cortez had spent a great amount of time utilizing the resources or just seeking assistance with homework.
“I really liked how she was energetic despite the things she was going through throughout her life. We would gather up stuff and give donations to her. … She would even volunteer for our workshops and other things we do,” Sanchez said.
Cortez now spreads the message of the resources that the center provides and assists in the organization of workshops, said Sanchez.
Recently, her biological family has reached out to her through Facebook message and she was convinced by Tania Cortez to accept the invitation and to open a dialogue. with her estranged family
Cortez was surprised to find that she had a 16-year-old brother and that her biological family was in the U.S.
Given her biological background and parentage, she said that she does her best to not only help members of the LGBTQ and homeless community, but the undocumented community as well.