When he was growing up, Noe Rueda's family didn't have a lot of money. He wanted to help out, so he became a young entrepreneur. And in the process, Rueda found a way to go to college.
Thinking back to when he was little, Rueda says that his mother often provided for herself and her four children by making less than $8,000 in a year.
"And if she reached the $8,000, she would actually be happy that she made that much," Rueda recently told his former high school economics teacher, Alex Fernandez .
That was in Little Village, a largely Latino, low-income neighborhood on Chicago's West Side.
And when Rueda was 8, around the time he was in the second grade, he started selling cleaning supplies that had been discarded from a nearby factory. He used the money he earned to buy more supplies, and a very small business was born.
"I would literally go outside my house, there was like a little bench, I'd put all my products there and sell them," he says. "I didn't make much. I made, what, 20 bucks a week? But for an eight-year-old, you're a millionaire with that kind of money."
"That's a lot of comic books and stuff," Fernandez says.
"I didn't go buy Pokemon cards," Rueda says with a laugh. "The little money I made, I gave it to my mom."
He recalls the first time he did that — when his mother was standing in the kitchen cooking.
"I came up to her and I told her, 'Mom, I know you don't have money, so here's 15 bucks I made.'
"She turned off the stove. She turned around, started crying and hugged me. From that point on, I just dedicated on getting money for my family."
Fernandez asks, "How did you make that money?"
"I actually started helping on a construction site," Rueda says. "This was in fifth grade. It was bad on my bones. I have bad shoulders, bad knees from all the stuff I was carrying."
Asked what he was thinking at the time — and whether he thought that everyone was dealing with the same struggle his family was going through — Rueda recalls one day when he saw his situation through someone else's eyes.
"My shoes were all scraped up, so I got paint and I painted them white," he says. "Some kid fell and tripped in front of my shoes, and noticed. And he pointed it out and, uh, laughed. And that's when it hit me really hard — like, 'I'm actually poorer than I thought.'"
Currently, Rueda is studying marketing at Marian University — with help from a scholarship he won through Fernandez's class.
"How's your first semester of college been?" Fernandez asks.
"Things are great," Rueda says. "I just think about it, like, being the first one to go to college in my whole family, of over 50 of us. That's my biggest motivation."
"I'm really proud of you, that you went this far," Fernandez says. "And I just want to have you come back, in like 10 years, dressed really sharp. You know, in like, a suit..."
"...nice shoes," Rueda adds with a laugh.
"Nice shoes, and finally have a pair that you haven't painted," Fernandez says.
"I've had so many students where everything's stacked against them," Fernandez says. "What happens is, they get almost there, and then they just quit. You know, I really want you to be the one that finished. To be the one that actually did it. And I want you to get everything you've ever wanted."
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Michael Garofalo. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
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