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Robert (center) with Adolfo Espinosa Cruz, a sophomore, and Sary Martinez, a senior.
Robert (center) with Adolfo Espinosa Cruz, a sophomore, and Sary Martinez, a senior.

What do South Central LA, the Ivy League’s Dartmouth College, El Salvador and the Emily K Center have in common? Robert Polanco. The story of how this 26-year-old student support specialist for the Scholars to College program at the Emily K Center crisscrossed the country and ended up helping kids in Durham is an unlikely one.

The Emily K Center – which opened in 2006 with the mission to serve academically focused, low-income students in out-of-school programming designed to help them achieve in school, gain entry to college and break the cycle of poverty in their families – currently has more than 314 students enrolled. Robert is a role model of success from a similar program.

“I grew up in a South Central LA, where my parents had emigrated from El Salvador,” he says. “Education was the best way out. I was lucky to be enrolled in a program called One Voice Scholars to help kids from my neighborhood be the first generation to go to college.��� He won a full ride to Dartmouth College, a world away in Hanover, N.H. But a degree alone does not guarantee success.

“After graduation, I went back to LA to work in the nonprofit world – Orchestra for Kids. I love working with kids, but earning enough to live in LA was tough.” That’s when Robert picked up the phone and called his mother, who lived in Durham and worked at a screenprinting company. He asked to join her in North Carolina, having no idea how tough it might be to get work.

“The Emily K Center was one of my first jobs,” he says. “I was a lead counselor, helping four high school kids learn time management and study skills.” It was a four-hour-a-week job – not enough to live on, but satisfying nonetheless. “I had a terrible time just getting interviews, let alone jobs,” Robert says. “I got to the point that I left off my Dartmouth degree on my applications just so I could get an interview.”

Robert ended up washing cars at a local car dealership. Eventually he was hired by AmeriCorps to run the Playworks organized recess program at Y.E. Smith and the Duke Youth high school summer program. Giving back and showing youth a positive role model was clearly Robert’s calling.

“One day, I got a call from the Emily K Center; there was an office manager job opening,” he recalls. “I went online and discovered another opening working with the high school kids. I let [them] know that was the job I really wanted.” It did not take them a day to realize he was perfect for leading the 114 high school students on to college.

“I love this community and the huge impact it is having on kids,” Robert says. “I understand even more now that you have to not only educate kids, but give them road maps to find summer jobs and get experience so they are empowered to break the cycle of poverty.” In Robert, LA’s loss is Durham’s gain.

Ed. Note: This article first appeared in our June/July 2015 issue.

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Dana Lange

Dana, a beloved member of the Durham Magazine team since our launch and the past board chair of the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, highlights her fellow Durhamites making a difference by giving back.
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