Fernando Mendez was a troubled youth and addicted to drugs that led him to prison, but leaves a legacy that still impacts many lives, including mine.
Fernando was a mentor and role model for me. He taught me, and uncounted other prisoners, that when you change your life, you can help others change their lives too.
It was a tragic loss for me and numerous others when Fernando was hit and killed by a car while crossing the street in Arizona in 2007. He lives on in my heart.
I am reminded of him when I reflect on this time of thanksgiving. I offer special thanks for a friend who made a significant, positive impact on my life.
Fernando means “ready to journey,” and he was always ready to travel in aid of others. To those of us who knew and respected him, he was also known as “Nano.”
I have many good thoughts and memories about Fernando. He was a kind, and thoughtful man who cared deeply about others and always tried to help. Flying from Tucson, Arizona, he often came to the Amity program at Pleasant Valley State Prison, where I met him.
Nano was a counselor and mentor for the prisoners. He drove and flew hours to reach Coalinga, and then went on to other prisons. Although he worked out of Tucson, he traveled the prison circuit mentoring prisoners on how to change their lives.
As a kid, Fernando wandered the streets in Arizona, like many other youngsters, trying to find a place in life. Like many others, he made bad choices that got him into trouble. He became involved with drugs, and eventually succumbed to being a heroin addict. This lifestyle led him in and out of Arizona prisons for 15 years.
Fernando struggled with school, as most kids do when they wander the streets and with little or no formal education. He continued to make bad choices, but inside he knew he wanted a better life, but he just didn’t know where to turn.
He found his way to the Amity Foundation in 1985, where he found people with love for the less fortunate. He says the very embodiment of Amity’s belief is that each of us is our brother’s and sister’s keepers. That convinced him he could abandon his criminal past and contribute positively to society.
Many of us looked to him as a mentor and a good friend.
“Fernando introduced me to a new way of living,” Courtney Hammond, a former gang member, said in an interview with the Tucson Citizen. “He taught me that I didn’t have to be violent.”
After the negative start to his life, Fernando joined Amity’s substance abuse program. Fernando and founder Naya Arbiter began traveling to various prisons on behalf of Amity. It was obvious to everyone that Nano’s heart was with the inmates. He lived and taught that actions speak louder than words.
Arbiter is an internationally known leader in the field of rehabilitation for people suffering from addiction. As a participant in the White House Conference on a Drug-Free America, Arbiter was one of only 125 national experts the president selected to attend the conference.
Nano and Arbiter co-wrote much of Amity’s curriculum. The two took Amity’s work to prisons throughout Arizona, New Mexico and California. Now Amity has expanded to China..
Nano worked inside and outside the prison with treatment programs such as AA and NA.
“Without Fernando, I’d probably still be in jail,” Michelle Espinosa, one of the many he helped, told the Tucson newspaper.
Amity has long been a pioneer of drug treatment programs. Nano and Amity tried things that others did not do. Fernando knew that primarily, Amity is about families. With a strong faith in God and intense desire to help, he prayed all the time. He prayed before meals, walks, and stopped beside the road to pray. He prayed for men and women to change their thinking, and life.
Fernando wanted to show anyone who would listen that there was a better way, according to Arbiter.. She also said, “He was one of the most unusual people I have ever met.”
Nano claimed that he didn’t like pets, although his story of a childhood pet cat called Percy belied those remarks. He was a complex man who only wanted to help people. He didn’t like social events, but he planned some incredible ones.
Once while working in the San Diego area, Naya said Fernando had a feeling they were needed at Donovan Prison. It was Halloween and after five hours, they finally arrived to find that he was correct. There had been some difficulty that needed attention and they were able to quickly take care of it. He always told people in trouble they were better than they realized.
Here are excerpts from The Amity Philosophy, which Nano applied to his life:
Our philosophy is based on the belief that life is an apprenticeship to the truth…Nothing is at last sacred but he integrity of our minds. We must press on, for nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm…No person is an island unto himself. Each of us must consciously participate in our own evolution, helping ourselves and reaching out to each other…As long as we willingly accept ourselves, we will continue to grow and develop our potentialities.”
Mendez, 52, went to Amity in 1985 to seek treatment for addiction to heroin. Within a year, he had received his GED and stayed on as a counselor.