LOS ANGELES – Catalino Tapia, a Mexican gardener whose schooling only extends through elementary school, has provided 264 scholarships of some $2,000 each to California university students over the past 12 years.
This year, 30 college students each received $2,000 stipends and a computer so that they could pursue their studies, something that Tapia feels is vital for their future success.
The value Tapia attaches to education goes back 60 years to the town of Arteaga in Mexico’s Michoacan state, where he was born and where his father died violently.
“I would have loved to study, but that was an unattainable dream,” he told EFE, adding that – without an education – he had to seek work opportunities in the US.
With $6 in his pocket he illegally entered the US in 1964 and headed for Redwood, California, where he still lives.
For years, he jumped from job to job until he became a gardener in 1980, but his biggest dream was for his children to get enough education become professionals and so he began saving to be able to help them out financially.
The effort Tapia made over years bore fruit in 1999 when his son Noel graduated from law school at the University of California at Berkeley, one of the best law schools in the world.
“I felt very happy, but I saw that there were few Latinos at that graduation, so I said to myself ‘I have to do something,’” said the 74-year-old.
Despite the fact that his earnings scarcely covered his family’s living expenses, he made a promise to himself and looked around for almost five years before it occurred to him to ask for donations from the wealthy people whose yards he cared for.
The response was very positive and in two weeks he had collected $10,000, and in 2006 he provided the first scholarships of $1,500 each.
Noel and a group of colleagues helped him set up the Bay Area Gardeners Scholarship Fund (BAGSF).
To be eligible for a scholarship, interested students must show that they are from low-income families, that they live in the counties of San Mateo, San Francisco or Santa Clara, that they have good grades, provide community service and, most importantly, “want to get ahead.”
Although the scholarships the BAGSF can provide are not as large as he would like, Tapia has been able to prove that he can make a difference.
From the start, Tapia established that the scholarships would be provided to students regardless of their immigration status, race, religion or gender.
An average of 100 students apply for scholarships each year, although the children of gardeners receive special consideration and the Tapia family contributes $1,000 extra to augment the available funds in those cases.
Tapia’s initiative has received recognition in the form of the social innovation Purpose Prize, the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis prize from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and an award from the Carnegie Endowment.