CHELSEA, Mass. — It started with an immigration raid four years ago.
From his Melrose home, Bob Hildreth watched the aftermath of federal immigration agents storming a New Bedford, Mass., leather factory and netting 350 suspected illegal immigrant workers from Guatemala and El Salvador. The event drew national attention when news reports showed the small children of some the detainees being cared for by strangers.
It also motivated the Boston banker and philanthropist "into action."
Hildreth, the son of an Irish immigrant and a descendant of the Puritans, put up half of the bail money for those arrested, roughly $100,000. To his surprise, Latino immigrants in New Bedford and across the state rallied to raise the other half.
Hildreth thought: Could Latino immigrant families also be inspired to raise money for college?
The result was the Boston-based group he founded: Families in Educational Leadership, or FUEL. For more than a year, his group has held "savings circles" in Chelsea, Lynn, and parts of Boston with the goal of training low-income immigrant families on financial literacy so they can put away money for college. The group promises that if families save $1,500 by the time a child graduates from high school, it will match that amount.
"I acted viscerally, from the gut," said Hildreth, now 60, who sold bonds in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s. "I saw that these immigrants could raise money for bail, that they sent billions of dollars a year in remittances. Why not do the same for college?"
So far, according to FUEL officials, the group has signed up 260 immigrant families and hopes to expand to other Massachusetts cities. One of those to join was Felix Mendoza Chavez, a 57-year-old part-time janitor at Boston's Logan International Airport who used to believe college tuition would be forever out of reach for his two daughters.
But after joining Hildreth's program, the Salvadoran-born Chelsea resident said he "saves every extra dime that falls in front" of him. He attends workshops on saving, drops in on community meetings about scholarships, and has no problem pressing counselors about various colleges.
"He doesn't stop," said his 14-year-old daughter Carolina Aleman, a student at Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational School in Wakefield. "He's really hard on us now because he really believes we can do it."
In addition, the group brings to meetings college counselors, financial experts and current college students who are children of immigrants to speak about private and public money. "In a lot of cases, we can get them a full ride with money that is already out there," said Gene Miller, FUEL Chief Operating Officer.
Hildreth began his idea with a pilot program in Lynn for 12 students. The high school students, who went through workshops about looking for scholarships and family financial planning, earned 61 college acceptances and $2.6 million in local and national scholarships.
Since then, FUEL opened programs in Chelsea and Boston targeting low-income Latino, Haitian and Chinese immigrant families. The group also persuaded local business, banks and foundations to help fund its matched savings program for first-generation-to-college families.
Patricia Gandara, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA and co-author of "The Latino Education Crisis: The Consequences of Failed Social Policies," said she has heard of a number of programs across the country aimed at helping Latino immigrants get into college, but nothing like FUEL's matched savings program.
"There are many programs where funders step up and say, 'I'm going to pay for college tuition and tutoring.' that kind of thing," said Gandara. "But a match program like this is pretty unique."
Gandara said many Latino immigrant families know the importance of a U.S. college education, however, it is sometimes hard for the families to grasp how to plan for it financially because the educational systems in Latin America are so different. For example, she said in Mexico most stop their education at eighth grade because high schools charge tuition.
Hildreth said the belief that college is unobtainable is an idea he wants to change with the match program. He said he believes an expanded version of it, with federal Pell Grants, will do for recent Latino immigrants across the country what the G.I. Bill did for the education of Mexican Americans in Texas and California after World War II.
Hildreth said the group also is looking beyond Massachusetts. "I have a 10-year plan," said Hildreth. "And I plan to be in L.A. one day."
But for now FUEL officials were putting resources in Chelsea, a city of 37,000 next to Boston, where Latino students make up around 80 percent of the student population. More than 85 percent of the city's students are classified as "economically disadvantaged," according to schoolmatters.com, a website that lists education data from across the country.
During a recent workshop on scholarships, a Chelsea High School graduate spoke to parents about her experience at UMass-Boston and private scholarships. Parents closely listened and whispered to their children to translate.
"I don't like to miss out on anything," Chelsea resident Encarnacio Landaverde, 47, a mother of two college students and one in high school, said in Spanish. "Every bit of information is important."
Her son, Oscar Lainez, a 15-year-old Chelsea High School student, sat next to her and translated speeches.
Also attending was Chavez. After his first meeting, Chavez immediately put away $28 for daughter Carolina and $12 for his nine-year-old, Eileen Aleman. He vowed to put at least $25 a month in each account with the hopes of saving $1,500 for each when the girls graduate from high school.
Eileen, who wants to a teacher or a doctor, said he can't stop talking about it. "He wants us to become something in life," Eileen said. "Not a bathroom cleaner."