Forward thinking

Adolfo Mercado

Photo By gabor mereg

Adolfo Mercado heads Breakthrough Sacramento, a public-private project that provides college-preparatory tuition to underserved students. In addition, the project maintains a teacher-training program for high-school and college students. The 36-year-old Mercado, an Oak Park resident and Christian Brothers High School grad, works out of an office at Sacramento Country Day School in Sierra Oaks. He began this post four years and eight months ago, and Breakthrough Sacramento has operated for the past 16 years. For more info, call (916) 481-8811.

How’d you get into this work?

I have been involved with educational equity programs since 1995, when I worked with the Early Academic Outreach Program at UC Santa Cruz. Breakthrough Sacramento is especially exciting to me because I am working with students and families who live in my hometown, even on the street that I grew up on and where my mom still lives.

What’s the data on higher education and upward mobility?

The U.S. Department of Labor has done research into the value of going to college, and their most recent research has proven that a student raised in poverty who earns a bachelor’s degree will end poverty in their family.

Why do you keep involved in education-equity work?

Each year student’s beam as they share their successes with me. These are very tangible examples of the effect Breakthrough and other similar programs have on individuals, families and communities.

Describe your contact with former Breakthrough students.

Alumni will e-mail, call or even visit and share updates on their activities and many accomplishments in different jobs in many career sectors. [Some are] advocating for increased justice, empathy and diversity across the country. These are ideals that I highly value and feel proud to have played a small part in helping make our world at least a little better.

Do your students have goals?

We have very clear expectations of our students [to earn at least a bachelor’s degree] while challenging them to look into selective colleges and find the best match for each of them. With our older students who work as teacher interns, seeing their passion for our mission is energizing.

Tell me the most interesting things about your occupation.

My job is fun because every day is truly different. Working with hundreds of people lends itself for lots of unplanned conversations, visits and requests.

You work a lot outside of the office, no?

Since we work with public-school students, I am also on school campuses in Meadowview, Oak Park, Gardenland and Del Paso Heights. Now, as the executive director, I also get to meet with colleagues in school-district offices, as well as funders/supporters in corporate offices. Every now and then, I’ll find myself in a family’s living room “talking shop.”

What are the most challenging things about your occupation?

I really enjoy interacting with our younger participants, but now enjoy equally collaborating with the program’s supporters: parents, advocates and funders. This economic recession has challenged many of my colleagues in nonprofit work with issues of sustainability, and Breakthrough has definitely felt the recession.

How has your funding been affected in light of the students you serve?

We lost our biggest cash funder while demand for our program is increasing. For me to hear from a foundation or corporation that they like Breakthrough but will not be able to offer any support still stings, too.

What has this drop-off in donor dollars meant to your work personally?

It is always tough to tell sixth-graders who dream of going to college that we cannot admit them into the program, but to not give up on their dreams. Likewise, telling a college sophomore that they have a stellar application, but we will not be able to offer them a job during the summer is always equally difficult.

Where are things going for Breakthrough Sacramento in this time of austerity?

The program director and I have been discussing “right-sizing” the program. With decreased financial support, we are decreasing the number of participants we will admit into the program. Our biggest supporter, Sacramento Country Day School, is committed to supporting us during this recession, and we are recognizing their effort by paying close attention to how we steward their support.

How can the public get involved?

True to our culture of working with each individual, I encourage folks interested in partnering with us in some capacity to communicate with me, and we’ll see what is mutually beneficial.