Night at Museum Turns into Dream Scenario for Asael Reyes
January 21, 2016 | Chicago, IL
Asael Reyes (third from left) received a generous scholarship at the Latino Caucus Foundation gala in November. PHOTO COURTESY TASOS KATOPODIS
It wasn’t the first time Asael Reyes had shared his story in front of others, but the stakes sure felt higher this time around. When the nineteen-year-old walked up to the lectern during the Chicago City Council Latino Caucus Foundation’s inaugural fundraising gala at Chicago’s Field Museum, he admits the gravity of the situation started to sink in.
“I felt very nervous and intimidated at first,” recalls Reyes, a freshman at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Moments earlier Stanley Field Hall had been bustling with conversation and laughter; now, a captive audience filled with some of the city’s most influential leaders sat before him.
“I recognized how important it was for me to share my story,” he says. “I thought, ‘Here’s a group of people who are here because they want to reach out to help people like me.’ It’s not very difficult to talk about something you’re passionate about, so I let my passion have control over my anxiety.”
Reyes recounted the challenges he encountered throughout his early high school years. Despite being bright, he used to bring home report cards that suggested he was on track to becoming a high school dropout. He struggled with motivation. As an undocumented immigrant, he questioned if any dreams he might have had were even attainable.
It wasn’t until Reyes encountered Erie Neighborhood House as a sophomore that he began to put his life back on course. He enrolled in the organization’s flagship TEAM program and was paired with Brad Hergott, a volunteer mentor and a member of the board of directors at Erie House. Together, Hergott and Reyes worked on setting academic goals and developing life skills. “Brad helped me mature by challenging me—not only in academics but in just about anything,” says Reyes. He also credits Hergott with helping instill in him a passion for reading.
The impact was profound, Reyes explained to the audience. “If it weren’t for Erie House, I honestly don’t think I would have made it to college,” he says. “I know for a fact that I wouldn't be in the place I am now.”
Instead of becoming a dropout, Reyes graduated from high school in 2015 and enrolled at UIC in the fall. At the time of the gala, he was carrying a 3.77 GPA through midterm grades. Not bad for someone who just a few years before had bottomed out with a GPA of 0.24. (Editor’s note: Reyes ended up with straight A’s and a perfect 4.0 GPA at semester’s end).
He told the audience he still faced challenges—even under the Obama Administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Reyes is ineligible for federal aid as an undocumented student and had been struggling with unpaid tuition bills—but his resolve had grown stronger as a result of the lessons he learned at Erie House.
Following his speech, Reyes was met with a standing ovation and an outpouring of encouragement from the audience. “The poise that he has is incredible,” says Hergott, who was in attendance at the gala. “I thought he was the best speaker of the evening. He stood up there in front of business leaders and politicians and gave a great speech.”
Several individuals approached Reyes to offer their congratulations at the event’s conclusion. Juan Gaytan, president and CEO of Monterrey Security and a loyal Erie House supporter, was so moved by Reyes’s story that offered to pay his outstanding fall semester tuition bill—an amount totaling $13,000. Fidel Marquez, senior vice president at Exelon, also contributed $1000 to help Reyes pay for textbooks.
“Their generosity gave me hope,” says Reyes. “I felt like someone believed in me.” He says that he will now be able to concentrate even more energy on his studies, community involvement and relationships with family and friends. “To put it short, I am extremely grateful.”
“I value the opportunity to give back to my community because I believe I have a duty to be an engaged business leader,” explains Gaytan, who previously helped provide a college scholarship for Erie House TEAM graduate Joanna Hernandez. “For Asael, $13,000 may as well have been $13 million.” The following week, Gaytan increased his offer and pledged to pay for Reyes’s remaining three years of college.
“It was really important to have (Asael’s) voice represented at the gala,” says Ald. Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st). The Latino Caucus member had reached out to Erie House—whose two West Town sites are located in his ward—to ensure a student from the community was able to share at the event. “The gala wasn’t just an opportunity to make ourselves feel good. It was for a cause. Asael’s speech was absolutely the highlight of the evening.”
Hergott viewed the event as a culmination of sorts for his former mentee. “When I first met Asael, his GPA was really low and he had gotten to a point where he felt completely overwhelmed,” he says. “Under those circumstances, you don’t even want to try.”
“But once he started to accomplish things, he realized his potential,” says Hergott, a lawyer who serves as Director and Senior Counsel at Discover Financial Services. “He said, ‘Hey, I’m good at this and if I can apply myself, I’m going to see results.’”
Hergott also praised the optimism Reyes developed as a result. “While his status (as an undocumented immigrant) was a barrier, it wasn’t insurmountable. Asael determined that it was not going to prevent him from leading a happy, productive life.”
For the Latino Caucus Foundation, the event was a success. It brought in more than $250,000 to help aspiring Latino scholars like Asael, according to a Sun-Times report.
“I felt it was important for (the gala attendees) to know the thoughts and experiences of the kids they were helping,” says Reyes. “Overall it was a great experience.”