Putting Three Kids Through College by Redeeming Cans and Bottles

March 30, 2006 — -- 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.

"I just love reading about space travel, so I would say astronauts were my role models and how did they get there? Well they had their engineering degrees," he said.

So Rogelio pushed for an engineering degree and went for the best. In 2002, he earned a degree in aerospace engineering from prestigious MIT with help from scholarships.

Filmmakers James D. Scurlock and David Baum followed the family on their first trip to Boston for their son's graduation and turned their story into the documentary "Parents of the Year," which screened two years ago at the Los Angeles Film Festival. (Click here to view a clip of the documentary: www.trueworks.us/parents_of_the_year)

Dreaming of a Vacation

Now out of school, Rogelio is doing some collecting of his own.

He said he still can't throw a soda can away, and holds on to them for his family. "I don't throw them out. It's basically a sin around here. It's like throwing out money. You don't do that here," said Rogelio.

As for Cal State Riverside graduate Adriana, the image of her mother pulling on rubber gloves before dawn is in her mind as she pulls on her suit jacket each day for her management training.

"I love my job," said Adriana. "I am not washing dishes … and I am not, you know … having to wake up early in the morning to go somewhere dangerous."

The Garcias' life on the streets of Los Angeles is nearly over. The older kids now contribute financially and the youngest, Angel, is now a college sophomore. He comes home for holidays knowing that every A grade he earns brings a smile to a tired mother's face.

When he graduates, she looks forward to some rest.

"I go to my bed, and I sleep maybe one week," said Yolanda.

But until then aluminum remains the currency of the Garcia family, who moved up from nothing, one can at a time.

"They put aside what people thought of them," said son Rogelio. "They put aside the long hours … their tired bodies, because they had one goal in mind -- just to get us an opportunity. And it means a lot to me."