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Cultivating the Next Generation

En español | Once a poverty-stricken young immigrant from Mexico, Catalino Tapia won a $100,000 Purpose Prize for creating a foundation, made up of gardeners like himself, that provides college scholarships for low-income students.

Tending the homes of the San Francisco area well-to-do fills Catalino Tapia, 64, with pride. But nothing has made this Mexican immigrant prouder than the day his youngest son, Noel, graduated from the University of California, Berkeley law school in 1999. "I still cry whenever I talk about it," says Tapia, a gardener in Redwood City, California. "I was just pinching myself to be sure it was for real."

But something even bigger happened that day. Tapia, who emigrated 40 years ago with just a sixth-grade education, started thinking of ways to give other Latino students the same opportunity his son had. Now he has another reason to be proud: Tapia received the 2008 $100,000 Purpose Prize in honor of his work launching the Bay Area Gardener’s Foundation, which gives scholarships to disadvantaged Latino students.

At its conception, after Noel helped his father with the legal documents to launch the foundation, Tapia approached his clients for funding.

"I was afraid to ask them for money at first," says Tapia, who in 2008 also won a Jefferson Award for Public Service, awarded by Carnegie Endowment and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. "What if I got fired?" Surprised to raise $10,000 in two weeks, he recruited other gardeners to ask for donations from clients, local charities, and Latino-owned businesses. Two years ago, the foundation awarded its first grants—$1,500 each—to five students, just enough to help pay for textbooks, housing, transportation, or a computer. Since then, the charity has raised nearly $300,000 and awarded 30 scholarships to both documented and undocumented students. “Nothing should stand in the way of a child getting a good education,” says Tapia.

Many of the scholarship students are the first in their family to go to college. Marlene Castro, 18, of Redwood City, whose father is a gardener and whose mother owns a house-cleaning business, won a scholarship in 2008. "It’s difficult for my parents to even make a house payment, so without Catalino’s help I would have gone to a community college and tried to transfer," says Castro, who intends to pursue a double major in media studies and rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley.

Her mother, Ana Ramirez Castro, says, "Nothing makes a parent prouder than knowing your child has done well. I got chills all over when Catalino phoned to tell us Marlene had won." Marlene’s academic success has inspired her younger brother, Jose Jr., to apply for a foundation grant to attend the Academy of Art University in San Francisco next year.

Every grant is critical, given that only only 14 percent of U.S.-born and 5 percent of foreign-born Latinos earned bachelor’s degrees, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Low-income Latino families place high value on a college education, but financial constraints often block their dreams, according to the Public Policy Institute. In addition, students and parents may be unfamiliar with the school system and local resources, says institute economist Deborah Reed. "Parents these days have to advocate for their child through the K–12 years to be sure their kids are getting the right college preparatory class work," she says. "Foreign-born parents often trust the schools to take care of that, but where one guidance counselor may be assigned to hundreds of students, the schools can’t do the job."

Even before his two sons were born, Tapia and his wife, Margarita, started saving money for their children’s education, setting aside a few dollars from his jobs in a bakery, carwash, machine shop, and finally his gardening business. "Catalino is one of the most compelling examples we’ve ever encountered of people becoming change-makers, no matter what their background or socioeconomic level," says Marc Freedman, founder and CEO of Civic Ventures, which awards the Purpose Prize to age 60-plus social innovators. "You don’t have to be a Bill Gates or an Al Gore to translate your skills and experience into an encore career helping others."

Tapia’s work has just begun. He intends to invest the prize money in interest-bearing certificates of deposit to expand the scholarship program. In a few years, he plans to turn his gardening business over to his older son and work full-time running his foundation. Then he wants to go back to school. "Maybe it was an advantage to me not to have a formal education, because that inspired me to help others, but now it’s time for me to get my high school diploma," he says. "And after that, who knows?"

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