This spring—as federal prosecutors announced a major college admissions scandal that had ensnared wealthy movie stars and prominent Californians, who paid millions in bribes to get their kids into elite universities—a poor kid from a poor California town faced her own dilemma about money and universities: How could she use her own meager bank account to help others go to college?
Fabiola Moreno Ruelas, an 18-year-old from the Salinas Valley town of Gonzales, was about to become California’s most unlikely philanthropist. She had not had a glittering, Carnegie-style (or even Kardashian-style) upbringing. In fact, she had suffered much of the worst of California, from the deportation of her father, to a serious auto accident, to the eviction of her family from their home.
But when Fabiola received $29,000 on her 18th birthday—a windfall that was itself a product of a moment of misfortune—she knew she didn’t want to spend it on herself. Yes, $29,000 was far less than the hundreds of thousands of dollars that rich parents had paid to admissions counselors and college coaches in bribes to guarantee college for their own kids. But it was enough, she thought, to make a difference in the lives of her friends and neighbors in Gonzales.
On the one hand, this is a simple story about a small, new scholarship program. On the other, it is an urgent and timely fable about the real meaning of poverty, the true nature of generosity and community, and the abundance of spirit that can spin bad luck into good.
As such, it also might be considered a 21st-century updating of another child of the Salinas Valley, John Steinbeck, who advised in The Grapes of Wrath: “If you’re in trouble or hurt or need—go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help—the only ones.”
Fabiola was born in Salinas and moved to Gonzales, 20 minutes south along the 101 Freeway, when she was two. Her father, who was undocumented, was deported when she was still a small child, but she and her older siblings stayed on in Gonzales. In selection of a hometown, at least, she would prove to be very lucky.
Gonzales is home to 10,000 people, more than one-third of them children. Many of their parents work long hours in local processing plants or in the surrounding fields of green vegetables. Gonzales is neither rich (median household income is $53,000) nor well-educated, with just 10 percent of adults holding college degrees.
But over many years, Gonzales has developed a local culture that is extraordinarily supportive of children. A dense web of programs is available for kids during the summer and after school, involving sports, service, or jobs. And Gonzales celebrates its children’s achievements forcefully. On a recent visit, the city had posted banners all around town featuring recent Gonzales High School graduates and the colleges they are attending this fall.
Fabiola and her family always struggled, but they found that people in Gonzales were reliably there to help—to find cheap or donated clothes (via a local church), or to get them signed up for food stamps or welfare. Fabiola started kindergarten at the young age of four—her mother needed a place to send her—and her teachers bought her first set of school supplies and uniforms. In middle school, she was able to do sports because they were free, and she helped other members of the community to fundraise for youth programs.
But in high school, her life got even tougher. Freshman year, she was in a very serious car accident while riding with five friends to celebrate a birthday. She fractured her skull, wrist, and back, but at least she and everyone else survived.
After her sophomore year, her family was evicted from their apartment. They had nowhere else to go, and though her mother and new stepfather were working, every paycheck would go to pay the lawyers’ fees to contend with a lawsuit from the landlord who had evicted them, she says. With a new baby brother, the family moved around from place to place, depending on the generosity of neighbors. They collected plastic bottles from the side of the freeway, redeeming them to get money for food. They didn’t have money to pay their water bill, so Fabiola filled up jars at a local elementary school.
It was the indignity of fetching water that became a turning point for Fabiola. As she stood at the school faucet, she realized she did not want to live like this. She had been an indifferent student, but education, she realized, was the only thing that was free in her life, so she decided to seize its opportunities for all they were worth. Her brother-in-law gave her his old computer. She got straight A’s her junior year. She even took a sociology class at Hartnell College up in Salinas, because the class and the books were free. She went to the Gonzales Starbucks—not to buy anything, but to use the free Internet so she could do her homework.
Joining the Gonzales Youth Council—which operates like a young person’s city council, even writing local ordinances—didn’t cost her any money, so she did that, too. Senior year, she applied to become a youth commissioner of the council, to represent the body at the school board and city council. Soon all of Gonzales’ opportunities came at her, including a paid fellowship with the city government.
No one in her family had completed college; one older sister had dropped out of Hartnell. But Fabiola’s mentors at City Hall encouraged her. And the school superintendent even took her along on a trip to San Diego, where she discovered she liked San Diego State. She applied, and was admitted, with $13,000 in scholarship money. But she would need to pay $5,000 out of her own pocket just to survive, and she didn’t have it. Where would she get the money?
Gonzales, once again, would supply the answer. The town has a tradition of local citizens starting small scholarship funds. A local firefighter, who died in 1996, endowed a scholarship for students who have a 3.0 GPA and are interested in the emergency field. A family of teachers set up another scholarship. And then there’s Maury Treleven, who works with the city and set up the Treleven Family “Service is Learned” Scholarship, which gives money, no strings attached, to college-bound Gonzales kids.
Fabiola won a $5,000 Treleven scholarship and headed off to San Diego State last fall, when she was still just 17 years old.
When she turned 18 during the year, she suddenly came into a bit of money. As part of the settlement from that freshman year car accident, she was entitled to $29,000 when she became an adult.
Fabiola mulled over what to do with the windfall. She talked with her family about the possibility of starting a business or buying a house for her mother. But as she and her family thought more about it, they wanted to make sure the money didn’t disappear quickly. And Fabiola felt strongly that she needed to give something back to a community that had supported her through so many difficult years. She decided to start with the sort of scholarship program she knew well, because she herself had benefited from it.
In December, she helped set the program up, naming it the Ruelas Fulfillment Scholarship, in honor of her mother. She worked with her high school counselor to create an application for high school seniors seeking extra money they would need to be able to afford to live during college. A 2.9 GPA and 80 hours of community service are required for eligibility. The Rotary Club agreed to manage her scholarship fund, so that the money would grow and last longer.
Thirty applications came in, and it was in March, with the news dominated by the college admissions scandal, that Fabiola awarded her first scholarships—$500 each to four students. She says she selected applicants who showed great resilience. One of the recipients is a student she ran against in the youth commissioner elections. She plans to make similar awards the next two years, and then see if she might be able to raise money to do even more.
“I was a little selfless in thinking about this money, but everyone in Gonzales was very selfless in helping me growing up,” she says. “Our community put us first.”
I met Fabiola in Salinas, where she was staying with an older sister for the summer. She exuded appreciation—for her life, for family, and for California.
When I asked her what she made of the college admissions scandal, she expressed some puzzlement. Didn’t those rich parents know that everyone would have been better off if they’d devoted their own financial windfalls to college scholarships for all the kids who can’t afford it?
In that answer lies a parable about two Californias—one rich and old and pessimistic about their own children’s abilities to rise, and the other poor but young and optimistic and determined to lift everyone up.
Which California would you rather live in?