Luis Ortiz teaching a class at El Centro

News & Features

Thursday, March 10, 2016

When Luis Ortiz graduated from Northeastern Illinois University, one of his first calls to the field took him back to his family’s roots in Puerto Rico.

In the wake of a hurricane that battered the island where his parents grew up, Ortiz departed his American Red Cross office in downtown Chicago and set up shop in a room above a beauty parlor in San Juan that served as the Red Cross response headquarters. Ortiz spent the summer assessing the damage, providing services and assuring safe housing, food and furnishings for displaced residents.

“I was there with these blank vouchers,” said Ortiz, who earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology in 1977. “I was like a surveyor. The people were crying and emotionally upset, and I was there to help.”

Ortiz looks back on that time in his life as the true start of his journey into the social work profession. Now, decades later, his life has come full circle. Ortiz is not only an accomplished social worker back in Chicago, where he was born and raised, but he also is a well-liked and well-respected instructor in Northeastern’s Social Work program.

“That job at the Red Cross really prepared me because it was my first real job after graduating from Northeastern and it started me off in my career,” Ortiz said.

It’s that kind of hands-on experience that Ortiz brings into Northeastern’s classrooms on the Main Campus and at El Centro, where he’s often spotted practicing his hobby: photography.

After three years with the Red Cross, Ortiz went on to work as a program director for the Pilsen Little Village Community Mental Health Center (now Pilsen Wellness Center) and also coordinated a volunteer service program for Casa Aztlan, a community-based settlement house program in Pilsen. In time, Ortiz founded his own agency, Pro Health Advocates, which is a state-licensed substance abuse and domestic violence counseling center based in Cicero.

During his time at Pilsen Little Village Community Mental Health Center, Ortiz provided crisis intervention and case management services. Later as its program director, he supervised a staff of 110 and coordinated all of the agency’s programs, such as an emergency housing shelter for men, women and families and a community living arrangement housing program for the mentally ill. It was here that he met Jade Stanley, who now serves as chair of Northeastern’s Social Work program.

“Luis has a strong connection to the Chicago community, particularly in Pilsen, Humboldt Park, Logan Square and Lincoln Park,” Stanley said. “This connection provided him with the ability to learn a lot about individuals, families and groups from these communities as well as the professionals and key stakeholders. Luis’ knowledge and skills were a perfect fit for our program.”

Students say they have formed personal and professional connections with Ortiz, who has been an instructor at Northeastern for almost 10 years.

Benjamin Mendoza, a senior Social Work major, said Ortiz’s role as a program adviser helped him when he decided to declare his major.

“I came to an open house and I went up to him,” said Mendoza, who transferred from Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills. “I was feeling a bit lost as to whether or not I wanted to major in Social Work, but he made me feel comfortable. After our conversation, I knew then that Social Work would be what I wanted to do.”

Ortiz, who earned a master’s degree in health and human services administration from Roosevelt University, is considered the “go-to” person in the Social Work department. When there is a need for a guest speaker for a class or ideas for workshops, Ortiz calls upon his resources to help fill the void.

Alfonso Trevino Jr., who earned his bachelor’s degree in Social Work in May, can attest to this. The former president of Northeastern’s chapter of the Alliance of Student Social Workers said Ortiz was one of the key players who helped in the club’s fundraising initiatives.

“He was just a good resource,” Trevino said. “I remember one time, we needed to print a poster board for an event, and he was like, ‘I have a connect. Here’s the place and tell them I sent you, and they will give you a discount.’ He has so many established friendships and connections and allies in the community that were really instrumental in our fundraising successes.”

Stanley likes to call Ortiz and “old-school practitioner and educator.”

“His reply is always, ‘Old school is the best school,’ ” Stanley said. “This show of warmth demonstrates to me Luis’s ability and willingness to be involved in aspects of our Social Work program, both on the Main Campus and at El Centro.”

Ortiz, who teaches courses on policy, research and cross-cultural analysis, knows that it all comes back to the students and ensuring that what they learn can be applied in the field—whether they are called to a homeless shelter or the aftermath of a hurricane.

“When I teach, I want the students to leave with something,” he said. “So if I am teaching policy, I want them to walk away having learned something about policy, so they can share the knowledge and apply it.”