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Small Business

Growing Money for Needy Students

Catalino Tapia, a gardener with a sixth-grade education parlayed his business into scholarships for college students from low-income families. <b>As told to Candice Lee Jones. </b>

Catalino Tapia relied on his gardening business to start a scholarship fund for low-income familes.

What brought you here from Mexico? In 1964, when I was 20, I came to the U.S. to find a better life for my family. I had very little money, and it took three months to find my first job: baking doughnuts for 45 cents an hour. Over the years I moved from job to job to support my wife and two sons. I washed dishes, I washed cars, and in 1982 the plant where I made safe-deposit boxes shut down. I'd been working as a gardener on weekends, and I saw a chance to start my own small business.

How did you go from gardener to fund-raiser? My wife and I started saving for our children's education even before we had children. We put away $50 here and $100 there. My youngest son's graduation day from Berkeley Law was my motivation to help other students. I noticed that not many Latinos were onstage and thought, I have to do something about this.


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How did you start the Bay Area Gardeners' Foundation? Several attorneys and community members volunteered to help me organize it. I have wealthy customers all over the Bay Area. At first I was afraid to ask them for contributions; I was afraid they would fire me. But they are good-hearted people, and they are behind me 100%. In the first two weeks the foundation raised $10,000. When the word got out, I received checks from local businesses and even from other parts of the country.

How many scholarships have you awarded? In 2006 we sponsored five students and in 2007 we sponsored nine, each for $1,500. In 2008 we raised the scholarship amount to $2,000 and gave out 18. This year I think we will be able to give out 20. It grows every year, and our goal is to raise the amount to $5,000 per student. If students can put this money toward books or a new computer, that means they can spend less time working and more time studying. And we don't support them just with money. It's more important to offer moral support and tell them that we believe in them.

Who are the recipients? They are local students from low-income families. We look for a grade-point average of at least 2.5, and we ask that they commit to 20 hours of community serv-ice in the coming year.