ALEX CHADWICK, host:
Next, we're going to hear about a gardener who, 40 years ago, left Mexico for California with a sixth grade education and only $6 in his pocket. He learned English, became a legal resident, and prospered. Then he started looking for ways to give back.
Catalino Tapia recognized that education is a key to success in America, especially for immigrants like himself. And that's how he decided to start a foundation to help young people go to college regardless if their immigration status.
NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.
RICHARD GONZALES: Meeting Catalino Tapia is like running into your favorite uncle. We found him at a client's home in an affluent San Francisco suburb. The burly 63-year-old gardener was on a ladder, explaining why trimming a tree is like raising a child.
Mr. CATALINO TAPIA (Bay Area Gardeners Foundation): Trees are more like human beings. They need the (unintelligible) attention, food, and loving care. And that's what I'm doing with the kids, trying to help them to prepare themselves for the future.
GONZALES: Tapia has always had his eyes on the future. He came to the United States from Mexico as a young man back in the mid-1960s. He worked in a donut shop, a machine shop, and in plant nurseries before starting his own gardening business. Along the way, he became a permanent resident and got married. And from the very beginning, Tapia was making plans for his children.
Mr. TAPIA: Since my kids were little, we start saving little by little for their education. Even when my youngest kid wasn't born, I was saving money for them to go to school.
GONZALES: The saving paid off. Tapia's youngest son graduated from UCLA and the UC-Berkeley Law School. And then Tapia decided to help other kids in his community who saw little or no opportunity to go to college.
And so with the aid of his lawyer son, Tapia established the Bay Area Gardeners Foundation. And then he sent out letters to his wealthy clients, asking for donations.
Mr. TAPIA: And to my surprise, in two weeks we raised like $10,000. And when we raised the $45,000, we start sponsoring kids.
GONZALES: Five last year, and the foundation nearly doubled that to nine students this year. Each receives $1,500. Tapia says it's more like seed money.
Mr. TAPIA: But for these kind of kids, it means the whole world because it pays for the books, transportation. And they don't have to worry about that extra work that they have to do to pay for those things. To me, that's a blessing because you have to see the faces on these kids when they receive the money.
Mr. NOEL CHAVEZ (Student, Canada Community College): Let's say that when I heard about the Bay Area Gardeners Foundation was when I needed it the most.
GONZALES: Twenty-one-year-old Noel Chavez is a student at Canada Community College outside San Francisco. He was struggling in his third semester. He doesn't qualify for financial aid while he's in the process of legalizing his immigration status. Looking around for options, Chavez found the Bay Area Gardeners Foundation, which never asks whether a student is a citizen.
Mr. CHAVEZ: I was more amazed of who was giving it and their purpose than even thinking about if I was going to get it, because I was like, isn't that amazing that someone who is working and struggling out there and working with flowers - someone who has no education and having to give something back to their community, it's amazing.
GONZALES: Margie Carrington sees a lot of students like Noel Chavez. She directs the financial aid office at Canada College, where some students are undocumented immigrants. Carrington says they're caught in a Catch-22. They can legally attend college but they can't work to pay for it. And that's where help from a group like the Gardeners Foundation can have a big impact.
Ms. MARGIE CARRINGTON (Financial Aid Officer): Sometimes even the smallest scholarship - just somebody being recognized and being appreciated, being noticed - sometimes that in and of itself is the motivation that can keep somebody that's vacillating between - do I stay, do I leave? - in school. And really, when you think about it, that's a pretty small investment in being able to really turn somebody's life around.
Mr. CHAVEZ: Hi, everyone. My name is Noel Chavez. I am a student at Canada College. I'm a first-generation student, and I'm the second youngest out of 12 children...
GONZALES: On this day, Noel Chavez is back at his alma mater, Sequoia High School in Redwood City, just south of San Francisco. The students in this government class are Latino, and English is their second language. Chavez is here to let them know that college is an option.
Mr. CHAVEZ: They have a lot of students in the past will tell me, Noel, I really want to go to college and I really want to make a difference in myself, but I just don't have the documents, or I'm in process. That's something you shouldn't worry about. We help you.
GONZALES: Chavez says he knows what obstacles these students face. Like juggling odd jobs and scrambling to find transportation to school. Chavez has more of his own challenges. He has to find money to pursue his dream of transferring to a four-year university, and even if he is successful and earns a degree, he won't be able to work legally unless or until he becomes a permanent resident. And that obstacle is not lost on the board of directors of the Gardeners Foundation.
Ms. TAMMY BARERRA(ph) (Bay Area Gardeners Foundations): We're going to call it to order. So we have Catalino Tapia.
Mr. TAPIA: Here.
Ms. PIRERA: Theresa Berumin(ph), Hector Sandoval(ph).
GONZALES: Tammy Barerra presides over the weekly meeting of the foundation at a local community center. The board is made up of gardeners like Catalino Tapia and community volunteers like Barerra, who is an insurance agent. She says four of the nine scholarship recipients this year are undocumented. Board members discussed whether to help students whose legal status meant they wouldn't be able to work after completing their studies. And they decided...
Ms. BARERRA: No matter what, they're going to have their education. So even though they don't have their papers, and even though they might not be able to get a job with their Social Security number, no one will be able to take away their education.
GONZALES: The man who started it all, Catalino Tapia, knows not everyone believes these undocumented students deserve an education. But he has plenty of supporters. After a recent news article, his foundation was flooded with e-mails, donations and inquiries from students.
Meanwhile, Tapia is looking ahead to the day when he can pursue his own dream.
Mr. TAPIS: When I retire, I'm going to go to school - to learn English and to get a high school diploma.
GONZALES: Tapia smiles and says so many of his other dreams have already come true, but he has one more.
Mr. TAPIA: And also I'm thinking guitar lessons. And I told my wife, when I learn how to play the guitar, I'm going sing you a serenata.
GONZALES: And with that, the gardener-turned-philanthropist starts strumming his imaginary guitar.
Mr. TAPIA: (Singing in Spanish)
GONZALES: Richard Gonzales, NPR News, Redwood City, California.
Mr. TAPIA: (Singing in Spanish)
(Soundbite of laughter_)
MONTAGNE: There have been efforts - both here in California and nationally - to legalize undocumented immigrant children who go to college. Last month, both measures failed to become law. The Dream Act was defeated in the U.S. Senate. It would have granted legal status to undocumented immigrants under 30 who arrived as children after they completed two years of college or served in the military. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger also vetoed a similar bill in California.