"I don't know why I have to do English," Eddie Garcia, 12, complained to Rose Espinoza, his after-school tutor in La Habra, Calif. (pop. 59,155), in 1997. "I'm going to be a police officer!"
"You've got to go to college before you can do that," Espinoza calmly responded.
"My parents didn't go to college," snapped the boy, a Mexican immigrant whose parents dropped out of elementary school.
"Why shouldn't you be the first?" she asked him.
Now 24 and a student at nearby Fullerton College, Garcia recalls that eye-opening conversation of a dozen years ago in the garage of Espinoza's home, where in 1991 she began offering free tutoring for children of mostly low-income immigrants in her gang-infested neighborhood.
"It's very negative where we were growing up. If I hadn't had Rosie's Garage, there would have been a risk of me getting in a gang," says Garcia, who turned around his failing grades in two years under Espinoza's guidance. Today, he is studying to become a math teacher in hopes that he can encourage children to pursue the American dream just like Espinoza did for him.
From the beginning, Espinoza saw education as a path to help children become confident, capable and independent adults. "I thought, 'If we help them with their homework, they can hang out with us, not hang out in the streets,'" recalls Espinoza, 57, who has an associate degree in industrial drafting and is pursuing a bachelor's degree at Fullerton.
Over 19 years, more than 1,000 youngsters have improved both their English language skills and their grades at Rosie's Garage, which began when Espinoza asked her husband, Alex, to move out his lawnmower and tools to make way for a makeshift classroom.
The couple and their 8-year-old son, Chris, had moved back to Espinoza's hometown in 1990 and found their neighborhood besieged by gangs, graffiti and gunshots. Espinoza went door to door asking residents how they could work together to reclaim their neighborhood and, in the process, found working parents who spoke little English and could not help their children with schoolwork. No wonder the high school dropout rate was so highnearly 22 percent among Hispanic students in the United States in 1990and gang activity so prevalent, she thought.
"These kids are counting on us to turn things around," Espinoza told family and friends, who agreed to volunteer as tutors. Meanwhile, her husband filled their modest garage with tables, chairs and shelves salvaged from a closed school.
Espinoza understood that the key to making Rosie's Garage appealing to kids was to make learning fun. She devised games to help them review for tests, offered cash rewards from her own pocket for good grades, and took academically successful students on field trips that included attending the opera and camping in the desert.
"You don't know how big the world is until you get out," Garcia says, "and Rosie helped us see that."
Just as the kids' outlook grew, so did Rosie's Garage. In 1997, Espinoza opened a second tutoring site in a nearby neighborhood, where educational programs were consolidated in 2005 in a former gang house. Last year, Rosie's Garage was incorporated as a nonprofit organization, funded by private donations, foundation grants and an annual 5K run to benefit scholarships for Espinoza's students, which she calls her pollitos (little chicks).
Espinoza, a medical instrument designer for Beckman Coulter Inc. for 30 years, now works full time overseeing Rosie's Garage, which serves up to 15 students each day. "I want everyone to have the opportunities they came here for," says Espinoza, who also is serving her third term on La Habra's city council. "Anything you set your mind to, you can accomplish."
The Espinozas still live in the same four-bedroom house where Rosie's Garage got its start, although Alex reclaimed the garage in 2005. At one time, the couple considered moving to a safer neighborhood, but instead they chose to change their own. Crime has receded, and gangs no longer have a visible presence.
"There's no reason to move now," Espinoza says with a wide smile.