Woman helps hundreds of Hispanics go to college

PASCO, Wash. (AP) âÄî It started with a copy machine. Linda Armijo was working in the print shop at her job about 20 years ago when she decided to start a scholarship program for Hispanic students. A co-worker stopped by to photocopy her son’s certificate from Afro-Americans for an Academic Society, an organization that helps young black people go to college by awarding them scholarships and certificates for academic success. Armijo thought: Why not a program like that for young Hispanics? “I thought that was really cool. And I heard about the dropout rate, how bad it is for Hispanics,” Armijo, 58, of Pasco, recalled last week. She was a high-school graduate who had attended beauty school. She enlisted her younger brother, Frank Armijo, and two other relatives, Ruben and Gloria Lemos, and they started the Hispanic Academic Achievers Program. Twenty years later, the organization has given out $2.8 million in scholarship money to help Hispanic students reach a goal Armijo never reached for herself — going to college. HAAP will award another round of scholarships Friday at its annual banquet, 6 p.m. at TRAC in Pasco. The organization hopes to give away $100,000 in scholarships to about 25 students, but the exact amount depends on how much was donated this year. Key sponsors include Dan and Sue Frost, who once again will provide the top prize, a $30,000 scholarship. Fiesta Foods gave $20,000, Bill McCurley Chevrolet donated just over $16,000, and State Farm Insurance donated $10,000. In HAAP’s 20 years, an estimated 450 Hispanic students in the Tri-Cities, Benton City and Connell have gone to college on scholarships from the organization. Another chapter started by a cousin of Armijo is in Yakima, and a Prosser chapter is in the works. “We can’t always fully pay for their college, but we try to help them get their foot into the door so they can find other means of paying for their college,” said Gabriel Suarez, HAAP president. Suarez was an early recipient of a HAAP scholarship when he graduated from Pasco High School in 1992. The $1,000 scholarship he received, at the time the biggest HAAP had awarded, paid for him to attend two quarters at Columbia Basin College. “That was the only scholarship I ever received,” Suarez said. “My junior and sophomore year, I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do. … When I got that scholarship, it really boosted my confidence and convinced me to pursue higher education.” Suarez eventually earned a degree in management information systems from Eastern Washington University and works as a network engineer for Lockheed Martin. Over the years, countless more students received HAAP certificates during their primary and secondary educations. The certificates were tokens of recognition that encouraged them to achieve a 3.0 grade-point average each year. “Seeing the faces of the kids getting certificates, they feel so good when they hear their name being read,” Armijo said. “That’s what it’s all about, seeing their faces.” The recognition encourages parents, too, as they are as proud of their children’s accomplishments as the students, she said. The awards and certificates are presented at an annual banquet in the spring, which for the past several years has been held at TRAC in Pasco. Early on, a separate banquet was held in each of the Tri-Cities, then it was consolidated into one event at the Toyota Center and later moved to TRAC. The event now draws an audience of 2,000 to 2,500 each spring. Like a grandiose quinceaera, the banquet can bring out the pageantry in those who attend. Armijo recalled students and parents who arrived at the banquet in tuxedos and limousines — even children still in elementary school. Keynote speakers have included actor Edward James Olmos; Jaime Escalante, the educator Olmos portrayed in the movie Stand and Deliver; former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Joe Kapp; Gov. Chris Gregoire, attorney general at the time; former Gov. Gary Locke, now U.S. Commerce Secretary; and state Rep. Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney. This year, like last year, the keynote message will be a video. The program provides students incentives to work hard on their academic skills as well as their English language skills, said Liz Flynn, an educator who has been with Pasco School District since the early days of HAAP. Her own children received HAAP awards when they were students in the Kennewick School District. “I’m thankful for our students that they have the community that comes together to recognize their hard work,” Flynn said of HAAP’s impact. Sometimes as many as 35 students have received HAAP scholarships in a year, but this year the number will be about 25 so larger scholarships can be given, Suarez said. The scholarship committee still was considering applications late last week. It’s not uncommon for seniors to come in for their scholarship interviews with notebooks of all the certificates they received throughout their education. They come with stories of difficulties they have had to overcome on their way to graduation. Most of the students come from low- to medium-income families, and many are the first to go on to college. Some come from broken homes and single-family homes and have had to support themselves while growing up. “It’s very important for us to key in on these students,” Suarez said, “so they can be motivators to their brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews and so on and motivate them to do well and pursue higher education as well.” HAAP also encourages them to come back to the community after they’ve completed their educations and give back to the organization that supported them. Or, if they don’t support HAAP directly, “Just get involved in the community and help motivate others,” Suarez said. In that way, HAAP aims to replicate success, like a copy machine that once inspired Armijo with a good idea. ___ Information from: Tri-City Herald, http://www.tri-cityherald.com