In a recent visit to Boston, New England Patriot tight-end, Aaron Hernandez, participated in two events to raise awareness of the need for more mental health providers to care for the Latino population and a unique program to train such professionals—Lucero Latino Mental Health Program at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology (MSPP).
Hernandez, who is of Puerto Rican descent, has taken up the cause because of his own childhood in an underserved community in Bristol, Connecticut and because of the growing crisis in Latino mental health nationwide. Nearly one in eight people in the United States are Latino, but only approximately two percent of psychologists are linguistically and culturally capable of caring for them.
As one of the few Latinos in the National Football League and with a great rookie campaign this year, Hernandez has a unique platform from which to speak to fans and the public. At age 20, he caught 45 passes for 563 yards and six touchdowns, breaking the team record for reception as a rookie tight-end.
Success has not come easily to Hernandez. During his Boston visit, Hernandez playfully interacted with over 120 third, fourth and fifth graders at the Gardner Pilot Academy in Allston, Massachusetts. At the Academy, 70 percent of the children are Latino; new children arrive daily, often immigrants who live in hotels and shelters.
“I feel I can be really influential to young kids because I’ve been through a lot,” Hernandez said in an interview with the Boston Herald. Close to his late father, Dennis, who was always his protector, Hernandez was devastated when at the age of 16, he witnessed his father’s death following a simple hernia operation.
Thrown by his father’s premature death, Hernandez acknowledged he made poor choices in trying to cope. “Eventually I received help from psychologists, my older brother, D.J., and later, Urban Meyer, my football coach at the University of Florida,” he said.
Sharing his life with the elementary school kids seated around him on the school gymnasium floor, Hernandez emphasized, “I knew I always had someone I could look up to, someone I could follow. When you have that role model in front of you, it can take you anywhere as long as you have the drive and someone to look up to.”
He also emphasized that its okay to make mistakes, just as he did. “When you’re young, you’re going to make bad decisions, but I learned from those mistakes and that’s the most important thing in life. Everyone is going to make mistakes, it’s a matter of how you bounce back from them.”
Prior to Hernandez’ school visit, the school children excitedly prepared questions to ask their celebrity guest including how he takes care of his health, both body and mind.
There is a strong emphasis on the connection between body and mind at the Gardner Pilot Academy. According to Erica Herman, principal of the school, “Our partnership with the neighborhood Joseph M. Smith Community Health Center, which has a satellite clinic at the school, offers both physical and mental health services. We actively encourage our students to seek counseling help and to talk about their sadness, fears and anger. Its important they know they can talk with someone.”
“Everyone up on their feet and let’s do football warm-up exercises,” shouted Hernandez following his question and answer session with his rapt audience. And with much laughter and explosive energy, he led the children, and school principal, through footwork and high knee lifts along with the passing of a football to every individual. The football, which Hernandez had just signed, was his gift to the entire school as a memento of his visit.
In the evening, Hernandez attended a gala which raised funds for the Lucero Latino Mental Health Program at MSPP. The program was created in memory of an MSPP alumna, Dr. Cynthia Lucero, who collapsed while running the 2002 Boston marathon and later died. Lucero was very committed to serving the needs of underserved populations, especially the Latino community. The Lucero program immerses prospective psychologists in Latino culture and language during their academic training.