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He received a last-minute invitation to speak last week at a gala held by the Chicago Latino Caucus Foundation, but 18-year-old Asael Reyes left the event with the biggest surprise of his life.

Moved by Reyes’ speech on his life as an undocumented immigrant, another guest pledged to pay off his college tuition bill of more than $13,000.

The gala was a kickoff event for the foundation to raise scholarship funds for Latino students. The 11 aldermen of the Chicago Latino Caucus were behind it.

Asked to speak because of his association with Erie House, a nonprofit with a history of giving a lift to the Latino community, Reyes told guests of his turnaround. Once a high school dropout, he is now an ambitious freshman at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

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Reyes, who came here from Mexico when he was 5, put a face on a story that teachers and community organizers often share: the hopelessness and stigmas kids face because they are undocumented.

“When I was younger, other kids would often tell me to ‘go back home’ and I was utterly confused,” he told guests at the Field Museum. “ ‘Go back where?’ I thought, ‘This is my home.’ ”

By his teenage years he realized he couldn’t work because he didn’t have a Social Security number. He lost his motivation for school and dropped out. His parents were at a loss on how to help, he told me. He showed signs of depression, sleeping long hours.

Two events changed his life. A friend persuaded Reyes to check out Erie House, where a staff member took an interest in him and enrolled him in a mentoring program. “I had already given up on myself,” Reyes said. “But they were trying to help. I thought I should give them something back.”

About the same time, President Obama signed an executive action to give temporary legal status to undocumented immigrants brought here as children. “The future became brighter,” Reyes said. “I knew work was possible.”

He went back to school and pulled up his grade-point average and test scores to get into UIC, where he is pulling straight A’s and plans to enter the Honors College, he said. But he quickly fell behind on tuition payments and couldn’t register for spring semester classes. Like other undocumented immigrants, he is ineligible for financial aid, including loans backed by the federal and state governments.

“Sometimes undocumented students, like myself, feel like no one is there,” Reyes told the gala’s guests. “We feel alone, we feel invisible and forgotten. But people such as yourselves give us hope.”

Minutes later, Juan Gaytan, who owns Monterrey Security in the Pilsen neighborhood, told foundation chairman Ald. George Cardenas [12th] he would pay Reyes’ outstanding bill. ComEd senior vice president Fidel Marquez offered to chip in $1,000, foundation adviser Becky Carroll told me.

“I was overcome with emotion,” said Gaytan, who said the check was cut this week. “Here’s a kid who wants to continue his education, and a bill of $13,000 might as well be $13 million.”

The foundation raised nearly $250,000, though it still had event costs to cover, Carroll said.

In addition to scholarships, Cardenas wants Chicago companies to sponsor internship and mentoring programs for Latinos. “We all must have skin in the game,” he said.

For now there is momentum and a young Latino who can stay in college.

Email: MarlenGarcia777@yahoo.com

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