US banker to match immigrants’ college savings

Associated Press | 2/22/2011, 6:42 p.m.

CHELSEA — 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, Massachusetts, 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.