Father and police chaplain teaches his kids through example

Despite growing up surrounded by violence, and working as a cop in a rough neighborhood for 10 years, Carlos Cortes has developed an unflinching optimism toward people and his role has a father.

Cortes grew up in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago during the 1960s and ’70s, where he later worked as a beat cop for 10 years. Between his childhood and his first day on the job as a cop, Cortes says the violence and gang activity in the neighborhood only increased.

Cortes says he’s managed to get past a lot of the darker things he’s seen. But it’s hard.

His parents worked hard to put him through Catholic school. His father often held three jobs and his mother owned a beauty salon. His father was also protective and often encouraged Cortes to work hard and keep to himself.

“My father taught me that a man’s only friend is the dollar bill in his pocket,” he says. “He didn’t want me to have the wrong friends.”

Family education Cortes has learned a mix of lessons from life, his parents, his neighborhood and his work. He has tried to sift through all the ideas for his three children-William, 16, Robert, 11, and Lauren, 7- to find a personal philosophy to help his kids through life.

His parents taught him important lessons, especially to persist in school, but Cortes has tried to give his children more freedom to make mistakes.

“Working and growing up in the ghetto sets you up to do the best for your children. It helps temper you as a parent,” he says. “But all I ever wanted was for my son to have fun; when he wanted a job, I said, ‘Just enjoy your life.'”

The Cortes family now lives in the Sauganash neighborhood on the Northwest Side of Chicago. With its closely tucked-together bungalows, it is populated by police officers, firemen and other city workers. Still, it has a distinctive suburban feel.

Cortes is far from where he worked and grew up, yet he says letting go of his time on the streets has come slowly. Sometimes he is overly cautious about “stranger danger” and he says, the kids “learn to be little cops.”

“Being a parent and seeing what’s out there on the streets can make you overprotective,” Carlos says. “Sometimes you’re not realizing how easy it is to be interrogating; it becomes part of our psyche.”

At the same time, he also hopes to teach his children that not everyone is a criminal or a drug dealer, and that you can trust more than your family.

“There are so many beautiful people, and only such a small percentage who aren’t,” he says.

Finding time and prioritizing Cortes switched from being a street cop to a chaplain and it is through that and his job as a dad that he has learned time is the most important thing to offer your kids.

Talking to teens enrolled in drug programs, Cortes says one quickly realizes parental involvement is critical.

“If you’re there, you can be everything to them for five minutes, because they have nothing,” he says.

But finding time takes dedication from both Carlos and his wife, Avita. Cortes spends a lot of time out on the streets during the day but also takes calls at night. If an officer has been shot, he says, a chaplain is always called to the scene immediately.

Avita is also a police officer. She works the night shift in the Wrigleyview, Uptown and Lakeview neighborhoods on the North Side of the city.

Though some would consider it a sacrifice, Avita says she is happy with working 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. She sleeps while the kids are at school, which gives her more time to spend with her family.

“[Working the day shift] I couldn’t see anything after school or go to PTA meetings,” she says. “I see them more during hours here at home. I don’t feel like I’m missing a beat.”

Busy schedules aside, Carlos says he makes an effort to spend as much time with his kids as possible, including taking his oldest son to tutoring every week. He says going to baseball games or just sitting down with them to watch TV or a movie can make an impact on their lives.

But he also says it’s crucial to spend time with his wife.

“It’s important to have time with your children and your spouse,” he says. “There are soccer moms who spend hours on end with a sport, but you can’t forget your spouse.”

Cortes’ wide-ranging experiences have also fostered his interest in volunteer work. He’s active in the Fatherhood Initiative, an organization that works to emphasize the role fathers play in their children’s lives.

Despite his busy schedule and the time he spends helping others through difficult times, Carlos says he doesn’t have much trouble keeping a positive outlook.

A self-described “new age guy,” he says he’s quick to cry at “Lady and the Tramp” and also to always tell his kids how he feels.

“Even my 16-year-old, I tell him I love him when I drop him off at school,” he says. “The biggest thing is love. I’m tough at times, but even when I reprimand them, I say I love them.”

In his work, and at home, Cortes says he’s always tried to emphasize the importance of family.

“More and more, society has so many ills that there’s a breakdown of the family. Family is the most important thing, no matter what,” he says, and with a smile, quotes his favorite band, “All you need is love.”

Working with a smile Cortes shifted his role from police officer to police chaplain nearly six years ago, partly to spend more time with his family and partly because he was tired of the Humboldt Park violence.

“The neighborhood, and being there all the time, I was frustrated; I felt like I hadn’t changed anything,” he recalls.

Cortes, a practicing Mormon, never doubted his commitment to his religion. However, he had trouble envisioning the move from cop working a rough neighborhood to spiritual guide.

“I’m just a typical policeman. I can be a gruff guy,” he remembers saying.

However, his ability to relate to the frustrations and challenges often faced by officers is what one friend said would make him an ideal candidate.

“He said I should do it because I’d been there,” he says.

Now, wearing a bright red Hawaiian shirt and an easygoing smile, it’s hard to imagine that Cortes was ever a beat cop arresting gang members.

He says he often dresses this way with a purpose. He will head out into the field wearing a goofy tie to make himself more approachable.

Cortes’ job primarily focuses on counseling police officers on dealing with the death of a partner to coping with the loss of a family member. Sometimes, he says, he is everything from counselor to local priest to taxi service if someone’s not feeling well and needs a ride home.

Cortes also notes his job is strictly ecumenical. There’s “no fire and brimstone,” he is quick to add.

“We don’t proselytize,” he says. “We’re just there to give a big smile, be a bright shining light and just to remind them that they’re not alone.”

Since his duties on the streets shifted from law enforcement to offering support to officers as they work in the field, Cortes says the lessons he learned while growing up in Humboldt Park and as a cop, chaplain and father have woven inextricably together.

Squaring off with gang violence, the drug trade and neighborhood resentment of cops can make officers view civilians as enemies. Anger and frustration on both sides can become overpowering, but Cortes says he tries to help the cops he counsels embrace compassion.

“I try to help them know that those people they work for are also human beings. Sometimes it’s hard to understand, or to want to, but they should try to pray for them. They are also human beings; they are someone’s child and you need to lead by example.”

Katharine Grayson is a reporter for Wednesday Journal, a sister publication of Chicago Parent. She is “mom” to two kittens.

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