It is a Jewish teaching that we assist the dead in a peaceful transition into Spirit by continuing their work on Earth. We extend their footsteps on their path here through our own good deeds in the directions they were headed and this allows them to rest easy because their work will continue. After my friend Elena was tragically killed in a biking accident, I wanted to do something to remember her and the good work she did with young people. She was an ESL teacher and she worked with disadvantaged youth who spoke English as their second language. She helped these young people imagine a future, figure out what they wanted to do with their lives, and pursue their goals. She worked with many young people who had huge barriers to overcome to be successful in life. I thought of collecting money from people who knew Elena and then donating it somewhere in her name. And then it hit me. A memorial scholarship for a student to attend college. The Elena Castaneda Memorial Scholarship Fund was born.
Because Elena lived all her adult life in Berkeley and loved that community, I thought it was fitting to give the scholarship to a student from Berkeley High School. And because Elena was a Chicana, Spanish-speaking, who helped so many Spanish-speaking young people, I thought it was fitting to give the scholarship to a student who speaks Spanish as his/her first language and who has worked hard to become proficient in English. I asked a group of Elena’s closest friends to serve as a board and selection committee for the scholarship. I wrote out the criteria, which included that the applicant had to be accepted to a four-year college or university. I developed a simple application form. My selection committee wanted to give the scholarship to someone who had done community service, since this was important to Elena. And we also wanted to give it to someone who would promote the Latino values and culture from which he or she came.
The first annual Elena Castaneda Memorial Scholarship Award was made on May 27, 2009. We raised $3,000, which was presented to Joaquin Garcia. Joaquin will attend San Francisco State University in the fall to study engineering and economics. His family is originally from Michoacan. He has done community service through BOCA and through his church, Saint Joseph the Worker. He made the varsity soccer team at Berkeley High when he was still only a freshman and was honored as the team’s most outstanding player for three years in a row. He is both an athlete and a scholar, maintaining a good academic record. Joaquin coincidentally grew up on Elena’s street, so perhaps at one time he spoke to her as she often conversed with the neighborhood children.
Elena’s parents and a group of her close friends met Joaquin, his mother, and his sister (who attends Claremont College) at the Senior Awards Night Ceremony last week. When Elena’s mother told Joaquin’s mother that she can’t understand why she lost her beautiful daughter, Joaquin’s mother replied, “Well, maybe it was so you could help someone like me.” Gracias, Elena, for helping Joaquin go to college. If you are inclined to donate to the Elena Fund for next year’s scholarship, please contact me to find out how. The tuition at a state school is now about $4,000 per year. We would love to give full tuition to next year’s recipient, and possibly give another small scholarship to Joaquin to help him in his sophomore year.