Scholarship founders honored for legacy of scholarships

Lindsay City Council issues proclamation for Katryn and Roger Gonzales who started the Legacy Scholarship Foundation that has awarded approximately $150,000 in scholarships

LINDSAY – Not everyone gets to leave a lasting legacy in the place they call home, but two educators in Lindsay have done just that. In fact they were awarded for it last week.

During the Lindsay City Council meeting last Wednesday, March 9, the mayor and council members paused to recognize the important contributions of Roger and Katryn Gonzales. With an official proclamation, Mayor Ramona Caudillo honored the duo for their work in the lives of Lindsay students.

The proclamation highlighted their contributions as educators, and as founders of the Legacy Scholarship Foundation (LSF) – a nonprofit that has provided scholarships to Lindsay High School (LHS) students for almost 20 years.

The honor was a surprise to the Gonzaleses for two reasons. At the time the proclamation was given, the Gonzaleses had been retired from the foundation for a couple years.

“It was unexpected, to say the least,” Roger Gonzales said.

The second reason it surprised them can be attributed to their genuine humility and innate desire to help children, without expecting recognition.

“All we did was go to work every day, so I don’t know what the big deal’s about,” Roger Gonzales said. “We were just trying to help kids. That’s all we were trying to do.”

It is a big deal.

The LSF, the proclamation stated, has “provided underrepresented LHS students with scholarship opportunities while at the same time developing a culture that promoted higher education among classmates, friends, and family members in the Lindsay community.”

Since its inception, the foundation has, the proclamation continued, “awarded over $150,000 in scholarship funding to more than 150 students who went on to graduate from over 40 different universities.”

But it was not always big.

“It started as a small dream of Roger’s and grew and grew,” Katryn said.

That dream was conceived when Roger attended an award ceremony at his high school as a teenager. He watched as they handed out scholarships to the seniors. He remembers telling his friend at the time, “Someday when I’m rich, I’m going to do that. I’m going to give a little bit of money to people.”

He was right. Mostly. He wouldn’t become a millionaire. And more than $150,000 is not just a little bit of money.

After his own graduation—from high school and then from college, after working hard to pay his own way—he was enjoying another kind of wealth, the intangible kind that enriches the soul. He had married Katryn, and they became teachers. They have now taught at LHS for more than 20 years. Katryn teaches science and Roger teaches English.

They neared middle age, and Gonzaleses teenage dreams of millionairedom had not materialized. The dream of scholarships for students, though, still germinated in his heart. There still had to be a way for them to give money for college to deserving students, Gonzales thought. He took the idea to Katryn. She loved it, and together they set out to accomplish it.

They turned to family first, sending request letters. It began as a way for their extended family to give donations back to Lindsay and first-generation college students, Katryn said.

After receiving several hundred dollars, they divided the funds evenly and awarded them to LHS students Perla Soria and Hector Diaz. It was the first of many scholarships their foundation would give.

The seed planted in Roger’s heart at that high-school award ceremony had finally sprouted into the Gonzales Family Scholarship. Whether or not they knew it at the time, their seedling would grow into a blossoming tree that would multiply, sowing seeds in the hearts of others in their community, the makings of an orchard like those orange groves surrounding Lindsay that are inextricably linked to the city’s heritage, culture and economy.

But for that seedling to grow, it needed nurturing.

Growing into a legacy

To generate awareness and funds, they established a 5K run/2K walk event that coincided with the Lindsay Orange Blossom Festival (OBF). This would eventually become the sole and signature event for the foundation, but they learned early on that producing an event to generate money also costs money. It was not until they received nonprofit status and sponsors for the event that they really began generating significant income.

They also learned that interest in and support for the cause was there. “It takes a village to raise a child type of thing,” Roger said, “And it just seemed like from the get-go people jumped onboard, and we had our regular participants in our race…For us it turned out to be a really cool community event.”

LHS students were a big part of the event’s success, too. They would volunteer at the fun run, from meeting at 5 a.m. to set up the course, to handing out waters along the course and eventually cleaning up after.

Volunteers, runners and sponsors returned year after year, rain or shine, hot or cold, wanting to support their homegrown scholarship.

“It’s just a cool vibe when people are happy, and excited, and there’s a lot of positivity, and I really dug that part,” Roger said.

The seedling continued to grow. They were no longer asking family members for donations but reaching out to local businesses and community leaders for sponsorships. Word spread, and people began contacting them, asking how they could donate or get involved. Roger credits Katryn’s business mind for the foundation’s growth.

He also credits Perla Soria, one of the two first recipients of their scholarship, for a lot of their early success. Soria, who now has a doctorate of education degree and serves on the Lindsay Unified School District Board of Trustees, was instrumental early on in helping manage donations and sponsorships.

Becoming more than just a family operation, the once-budding Gonzales Family Scholarship grew into the Legacy Scholarship Foundation. “The ideology behind it is give back, pay it forward,” Roger said.

It can be especially difficult for those who are the first in their family to go to college, he said. But the Gonzaleses believed that if they could help just one student get into college, they could make a difference that would go beyond that one student.

That’s exactly what has happened. But Perla Soria and Hector Diaz, who also returned to the area after graduating college to invest his knowledge and experience back into the community, are not the only legacy.

“I know that we have a few [recipients] that are teachers in the district now and have come back, and they work in the communities,” Roger said. “It’s really nice to see that they’re reinvesting in the communities, as well as their families.”

Katryn said she has been touched and humbled by the letters from scholarship winners each year.

“Alumni started donating and giving their time to volunteer at our run,” Katryn said. “It became a gathering of donors and runners each year during OBF.”

Legacy in Lindsay

Even those who were not recipients of the scholarship have been touched by LSF. Mario Zamora was a student of Katryn’s at LHS in 1997. Now he’s the city attorney and co-founder of Latitude 36 (Lat 36), the Lindsay nonprofit that is carrying on the Gonzales’ legacy.

“I have to admit that I was overwhelmed when I saw a list of the names of all the people that they gave scholarships to and the total amount,” Zamora said. “Lindsay’s a small community, but almost everyone in town would know at least one person on that list.”

With growth came opportunities to continue expanding the foundation to schools outside of Lindsay and throughout Tulare County. As much as they liked the idea of helping other kids, they recognized the value of keeping it local. They loved the idea of personally knowing the recipients and getting to see how the foundation benefited kids and families in Lindsay.

Today the Gonzaleses’ oldest child is now a college sophomore in New York, and their other two children are looking at universities out of the area. “It was time to scale back and support our own children during their college years,” Katryn said.

In 2019, they passed the torch on to the next generation. But that is the nature of legacy, to pass to a successor. But the board members of Lat 36 are proud to carry it.

“They really helped inspire us to get Lat 36 going and served as an example that you can make a big impact just starting with a little bit,” Zamora said. “LSF had a three person board, and look at the impact they made. I think several of us thought, ‘There’s 10 of us, so imagine what we could do.’”

When the Gonzaleses handed off LSF, Lat 36 already had an existing scholarship program, which is available to any student in Tulare County. But the Lat 36 board wanted to ensure that LSF’s focus on LHS learners lived on. The board established a special allocation just for LHS learners. “Of course the Gonzaleses were there helping us every step of the way as we transitioned to make sure we were on a path to success,” Zamora said.

Like the Gonzaleses, Lat 36 started with several hundred dollars. In 2021, Lat 36’s third year offering scholarships, the board has been able to allocate $5,000 in scholarships to high school seniors. “Our future plans are to keep expanding the scholarship, both in amount and in length so we can support students for more than their first year,” Zamora said.

As the Gonzaleses step back to focus on their family, they urge community members to get involved in making their community a better place.

“We’re not all going to be Bill Gates. We’re not all going to have these huge philanthropical opportunities. But if you can just help your neighbor or help the kids in your community, then I think that’s part of the deal,” Rogers said.

“There are many organizations in our community. We need everyone to give back with time, talents, service and donations. Find an organization that interests you, do your research, join in, help others, and make our community stronger by contributing to Lindsay,” Katryn added.

With societies moving toward globalization through the Internet, social media, entertainment, international news, and multinational corporations, Katryn and Roger’s generous and impactful contributions to their small town at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains is a refreshing reminder that everyone can make a big and lasting difference in the world right in their own neighborhoods.

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