A Man With a MissionMarch 30, 1998
Dr. Mario Benitez, the current Robert Foster Cherry Professor of Education, does not live in an ivory tower, nor does this author of numerous scholarly works spend his free time in a library. On weekends and during his vacation time, he often can be found working in a soup kitchen that provides food for the homeless. In his tattered jeans, shirt and jacket, he blends in with the soup kitchen's clients.
During a recent spring break trip to New York City, Benitez spent his time working with runaway youth. He and other volunteers waited outside the Times Square bus terminal and looked for young people who appeared lost. In a very low key manner, he would approach the runaways to try to encourage them to seek help at a shelter.
"You get a sense of when someone is lost," says Benitez. "If we cannot get them to look at the list of shelters and then take the list with them, they are fair game for pimps waiting in the same area who will offer them jobs."
Benitez says that on the New York City trip, he encountered a Vietnamese girl around 15 or 16 years old who appeared completely "spaced out." She was poorly dressed, without luggage and did not seem to know where she was. She would not converse with any of Benitez' team of volunteers until Benitez spoke to her in French. He convinced her to go to a shelter, and once there, she was placed in the care of Child Protective Services.
For all his commendable activities to aid people in distress, Benitez doesn't consider himself a missionary. Benitez believes he is just an educator who is learning to relate to the reality of the lives of a diverse population, and he is determined to make his students aware of that reality.
On his curriculum vita, Benitez writes, "Sociocultural issues must be experienced, not just read about. In my classes, students tutor at¡risk children in low socioeconomic schools, work in the Center for Battered Women, play at the pediatrics AIDS clinic with children who have contracted AIDS."
Benitez doesn't limit his activities to helping the underprivileged in the U.S. He also has worked with Albanian refugees in Greece and gypsies in Turkey. He has investigated the cultural conflict between Canadian citizens of that city and upper¡class immigrants from Hong Kong, and he studied the role of magic in lives of Mexico City citizens. In each case, he has immersed himself in the group's culture.
"It is not possible to walk in the shoes of another if the shoes are totally unfamiliar," he says.
Benitez will discuss the challenges that Texas education professionals face when dealing with a culturally diverse student body at an April 3 conference sponsored by the Baylor University and Texas Tech University Partnership Grant along with Baylor's Partners Project, the Region XII Education Service Center and the Waco Independent School District. "Diversity and School Improvement" will be the theme of the conference to be held from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Eastland Lake in Waco.