Scholarship winner Carolina Amor.
Building a Purpose co-founder and Executive Director Jesus Rendon awards a college scholarship to Carolina Amo. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

When Jesus Rendon was a football player at South San Antonio High School, he took losses hard. After a disappointing defeat, he would return home and sit in silence while many of his peers would go to a postgame party.

Rendon’s parents would use their son’s silence as an invitation to talk to him about how to cope with failure and move forward. Without knowing it, Rendon began to understand the importance of mentorship and how parents or other important adults could help him learn how to develop as a person and set goals for the future, even in the face of obstacles.

With strong mentors including his parents and some influential teachers backing him, Rendon aspired to become an engineer, attending the University of Texas and graduating in 2014 with an engineering degree. Soon after, Rendon and his wife, Judith, created the nonprofit Building a Purpose, or BAP, which seeks to match San Antonio students with mentors who can provide greater perspective beyond what a student is currently experiencing.

The organization also facilitates other programs, including a Saturday series that offers test prep and college prep courses, and guest speakers. About 1,000 students from districts throughout San Antonio have gone through some kind of programming offered by the organization.

In polling students within the program, Rendon learned that roughly 80 percent knew what profession they wanted to pursue but didn’t know anybody working in that career. To address this obstacle, Rendon started the College Professional Connection Program.

Students in South San Antonio’s Early College High School can participate. The program allows students to select a career path, research the education needed for that path, and choose a mentor who has agreed to work with students. About 450 students have gone through the program to date, Rendon said.

Mentors and a wide variety of careers are listed online. Then, students can review a list of mentors already on that career track and study their résumés.

After doing this research, a student can be matched with a mentor.

If a student is interested in municipal government, for example, he or she can ask to be mentored by former Councilman Rey Saldaña or the President and CEO of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce Richard Perez, also a former councilman.

Students interested in education, social work, or the military may be mentored by Juan Elias, who has worked in all three fields and served on the BAP board for the last three years.

At the first meetings between students and their mentors, the mentor lays out a personal history, providing detail about the first few decades of their lives. The goal is to show students that even if someone has experienced traumatic incidents or challenges early on, persistence can help them achieve their goals.

“I give them the first-hand account of what I went through, good and bad,” said Elias, who retired from teaching in 2015. “The kids have been awesome. We have nothing but praise for them because they are very serious about their future and we want to make sure they stay on track.”

(From left) Omar Garcia, Andy Castillo, Emily Rodriguez, Doug Ponek, Judith Rendon, and Rosana Galaviz speak on a panel about their experience in education at Building a Purpose.
(From left) Building a Purpose panelists Omar Garcia, Andy Castillo, Emily Rodriguez, Doug Ponek, Judith Rendon, and Rosana Galaviz speak to students about their experiences in education. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Another mentor, Henry Bonilla, is a former congressman and South San High School graduate who currently works as a consultant for Normandy Group. He has been a BAP mentor for almost two years.

Now he works with students interested in political careers who sit in the same place he once did. Bonilla said getting to that point in his career came with a lot of struggle. He wants the students he mentors to be prepared for that, especially considering the obstacles they might face as first-generation or low-income students.

“I let them know, in spite of what I’ve accomplished, I started where they did,” Bonilla said. “They look at successful people and think they just got lucky, but nothing can be farther from the truth. I let them know that you have to work and fail, get up, fail, get up, and it’ll all be worth it.”

At the end of the mentorship program, students can apply for college scholarships.

Nadia Briones, a senior at South San High School, applied for a BAP scholarship in March and explained to the nonprofit’s board her vision for her future.

With an interest in health professions, Briones chose a pre-med major hoping to become a pediatric surgeon, orthopedic surgeon, or athletic trainer. She applied to schools with notable programs and ultimately winnowed her choices down to the University of Texas and Baylor.

“I’ll be not only the first [in my family] to go to college but the first to graduate,” Briones said.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.

Laura Morales is a freshman studying journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and a contributor to The Daily Texan.