This spring—as federal prosecutors announced charges against wealthy Californians who paid bribes to get their kids into elite universities—a poor kid from a poor town faced her own dilemma: How could she help others go to college?

Fabiola Moreno Ruelas, an 18-year-old from Gonzales in the Salinas Valley, was perhaps California’s most unlikely philanthropist. She had suffered much of California’s worst, from her father’s deportation to her family’s eviction from their home. But when Fabiola received $29,000 on her 18th birthday, she knew she didn’t want to spend it on herself.  

This is not just a story about a scholarship program. It’s a timely fable about poverty, community, and the abundance of spirit that can spin bad luck into good. And it’s also an updating of advice fromanother Salinas Valley child, John Steinbeck: “If you’re in trouble or hurt or need—go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help—the only ones.”

Fabiola, born in Salinas, moved to Gonzales, 20 minutes south, when she was two. In selection of a hometown, at least, she would prove lucky. 

Gonzales is home to 10,000 people, few of them rich (median household income is $53,000) or well-educated (10 percent of adults hold college degrees. But Gonzales is extraordinarily supportive of children, with a dense web of sports, service and jobs programs for kids widely available. Gonzales celebrates its children’s achievements grandly. Recently the city posted banners of Gonzales High graduates and the colleges they are attending this fall.

Fabiola and her family always struggled, but they found that people in Gonzales were reliably there to help—to find cheap or donated clothes (via a local church), or to get them signed up for food stamps or welfare. Fabiola’s teachers made sure she had school supplies and uniforms. 

The community also helped her get through major difficulties. Freshman year, she fractured her skull, wrist and back in a car accident while riding with five friends. After her sophomore year, her family was evicted from their apartment, and, without money to pay their water bill, Fabiola filled up jars at a local school.

Standing at the school faucet, she realized she did not want to live like this. She had been an indifferent student, but education, she realized, was the only thing that was free in her life, so she decided to seize its opportunities for all they were worth. She got straight A’s her junior year, was elected a youth commissioner of the Gonzales Youth Council—which operates like a young person’s city council, even writing local ordinances—and won a paid fellowship with the city government.

No one in her family had completed college, but school superintendent even took her to San Diego, where she discovered she liked San Diego State. She was admitted, with $13,000 in scholarship money. But she would need $5,000 to pay various expenses, and she didn’t have it. Where would she get the money?

Gonzales would supply the answer. The town has a tradition of local citizens starting small scholarship funds. Fabiola won a $5,000 scholarship, sponsored by the family of Maury Treleven, who works in recycling. 

When she turned 18 during her freshman year, she suddenly came into a bit of money. As part of the settlement from that freshman year car accident, she was entitled to $29,000 when she became an adult. 

Fabiola investigated the possibility of starting a business or buying a house for her mother. But she felt strongly that she needed to give something back to a community that had supported her. So she set up a scholarship program, and named it the Ruelas Family Scholarship, in honor of her mother. She worked with her high school counselor to create an application for high school seniors seeking extra money for college. A 2.9 GPA and 80 hours of community service are required for eligibility. 

Thirty applications came in, and in March Fabiola awarded her first scholarships—$500 each to four students. She says she selected applicants who showed great resilience. She will make new awards next year.

“I was a little selfless in thinking about this money, but everyone in Gonzales was very selfless in helping me growing up,” she says. 

When I asked Fabiola about the college admissions scandal, she expressed puzzlement. Wouldn’t those rich parents have been better off if they’d given their money to scholarships for those who can’t afford college? 

In that answer lies a parable about two Californias—one rich, old and pessimistic, the other poor but young and optimistic about lifting everyone up.

Which California would you rather live in?

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.