- Associated Press - Monday, February 21, 2011

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 illegal-immigration suspects from Guatemala and El Salvador. The event drew national attention when news reports showed strangers caring for the small children of some of the detainees.

It also motivated the Boston banker and philanthropist “into action.”

Mr. 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, Hispanic immigrants in New Bedford and across the state rallied to raise the other half.

Mr. Hildreth thought: Could immigrant families also be inspired to raise money for college?

Delyanna Gilsanchez, 3, listens as her mother, Laura Gilsanchez, explains the Families United in Educational Leadership program to Hispanic immigrants in Chelsea, Mass. The program, started by Boston banker and philanthropist Bob Hildreth, encourages immigrants to set up college savings accounts for their children with the promise that the money will be matched. (Associated Press)
Delyanna Gilsanchez, 3, listens as her mother, Laura Gilsanchez, explains the Families ... more >

The result was the Boston-based group he founded: Families in Educational Leadership. 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 Mr. 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?”

Officials say 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 think that college tuition would be forever out of reach for his two daughters.

But after joining Mr. 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 analysts and 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, chief operating officer of the education savings program.

Mr. 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, the group opened programs in Chelsea and Boston that targeted low-income Hispanic, Haitian and Chinese immigrant families. It 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 the University of California at Los Angeles 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 Hispanic immigrants get into college, but nothing like the matched savings program.

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