Putting Three Kids Through College by Redeeming Cans and Bottles

This story begins with a happy ending, the now-prosperous lives of three children born to Mexican immigrants.

Up From Nothing: Amazing Stories of Starting at the Bottom and Rising to the Top, this Friday at 10 p.m. on "20/20"

Rogelio Garcia Jr., 25, is an engineer at a major defense contractor, with a degree from MIT. He's a steady young man with a steady girlfriend.

"I am living the American dream. I love my job. I don't have to worry about making next month's rent," Rogelio told "20/20."

His sister, Adriana, 24, drives a sports car and is in management training for a big rental car chain. Their baby brother, Angel, the only one not living at home, is now at San Jose State.

They're typical American kids with big futures. But there's one big difference: how they got there.

Trading in Cans for Cash

Yolanda and Rogelio Garcia Sr. live nothing like their children, and that is exactly how they'd dreamed it.

For 21 years, the Garcias have supported their family by picking through garbage, often cutting their fingers on broken glass while searching for cans and bottles.

Late at night they make their living on the darkened streets and back alleys of Los Angeles, recycling other people's trash for cash.

They've collected more than 8 million cans and bottles to help put two children through college. Their youngest is still hitting the books, so Yolanda and Rogelio still hit the streets every night.

"In my country, I was secretary … and here I come, and go to the containers or the trash. And I say, "Oh, my God, I do this?' But I need money," Yolanda Garcia said.

Working 365 Days a Year

More than 30 years ago Yolanda and her husband illegally crossed the border from Mexico looking for a better life.

They're citizens now and have held jobs in factories and in kitchens. They have never collected a dime of welfare or a handout when work was slow because there was always the trash.

For years, their routine would begin after midnight when they'd begin collecting cans, work they'd continue until about 3 p.m. the following day.

"And then my dad would pick up whatever my mom has been collecting and he will take it to the recycling center," said their son Rogelio.

The payout would sometimes yield as little as $40, with a good night bringing $100. But Yolanda said either way, "it's good, it's money."

The cash helps pay for school, but no luxuries. "No vacation. Nothing," said Yolanda. "And we work 365 days a year."

"It's something that … I couldn't believe my parents were doing. But I was appreciative that they were doing it. Because that meant that we got to eat and we got a roof over our head," said the couple's oldest son.

And their job came with a cultural stigma. "I know for my mom it was really difficult," said Adriana.

Yolanda said that sometimes people yell things at her. "But I don't care … because I have a dream."

Inspiring Their Children

The dream to see their children have a better life is one that perhaps their oldest son, Rogelio, did not initially appreciate .

When he was in fifth grade his solid grades earned him a spot in advanced placement classes that were more difficult, and his grades dropped.

His mom gave him a street class that forced him to picture a future without an education.

"They told me, 'you have the option -- what we are doing, or something else that you love to do,'" said Rogelio.

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