Every morning at 8, if he’s not out of town or in a board meeting, you’ll find Richard Castro sipping black coffee from a paper cup at the McDonald’s at Hawkins and Interstate 10.
Castro has started his day there since 1983, when he bought the restaurant, his first. He knows all the regulars and where not to sit to avoid taking someone’s spot. Like a back corner where a group of Bowie High School alumni like to meet on Fridays.
Castro, a self-made entrepreneur who worked his way through college flipping hamburgers as a short order cook, now owns 25 successful McDonald’s restaurants in the El Paso region and employs more than 1,300 people.
He has devoted much of his life and wealth to creating opportunities for students to succeed, particularly students facing barriers to education.
For those efforts, Castro has been named this year’s El Pasoan of the Year. The award, which El Paso Inc. has presented since 1996, honors those who have gone beyond their job descriptions to make a difference in this community.
A program founded by Castro in the 1980s awarded 632 Hispanic students nationwide a total of $1.5 million in scholarships in 2015 alone.
The scholarship program, RMHC/HACER, was picked up by Ronald McDonald House Charities and has become one of the largest for Hispanic students in the nation, if not the largest. Since 1985, it has helped more than 33,000 Hispanic students attend college and awarded more than $60 million in scholarships.
These days Castro is often joined at one of the McDonald’s white fiberglass tables by other business people and educators, bent over papers covered in hand-drawn graphs.
The graphs illustrate the region’s education challenges. Of the 20 education regions in Texas, El Paso ranks last in the percentage of students graduating from college. Only 16 percent earn a college degree six years after high school graduation.
“The best way to address the growing number of people with low incomes in our community is through education,” Castro says.
Castro chairs a new El Paso non-profit he helped found called the Council on Regional Economic Expansion and Educational Development, or CREEED. This year it pledged $1 million to fund programs in area school districts to help increase the number of college-ready high schoolers.
In November the group also launched El Paso’s first Girls Who Code chapter, an affiliate of the national non-profit, which teaches programming skills to girls in middle school and high school.
Castro grew up in a poor area of Del Rio, Texas. His father had a small construction business, and his mother worked as a seamstress. He credits his grandmother and parents for instilling in him a love for education and giving.
Castro’s grandmother, a single mom, moved from Mexico to the United States in the 1930s. Castro’s mom was 5 or 6 years old at the time.
Castro’s grandmother built her home with a small schoolhouse attached. It provided neighborhood kids an education and Castro’s grandmother a means of support.
Before going into the burger business in El Paso, Castro worked as a schoolteacher in Del Rio and was city manager there in the 1970s.
In 2005, he was named the National Hispanic Businessman of the year by the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and in 2007, he was inducted into the El Paso Business Hall of Fame.
He has served on numerous non-profit boards and has been active in youth sports. He was also behind the founding of the Boys Club, now the Boys and Girls Club of America, in Del Rio.
He is the founder of McDonald’s Hispanos Triunfadores, which recognizes successful Hispanics who have a history of giving back to the community.
He also founded the local non-profit Community en Acción, a network of Hispanic leaders working to improve El Paso through education, arts, culture and economic development.
In a booth at the McDonald’s on Hawkins, Castro sat down with El Paso Inc. and talked about the state of education in the region, what’s being done to improve outcomes and promoting a mindset of success, wealth building and philanthropy in the Hispanic community.
Q: Why do you start your day here?
This was my first restaurant, so I have a special bond to this location. When I first bought this restaurant, I was here every day, working. As I continued to grow, I found I enjoyed coming to this one and visiting with the management, the crew and customers.
For me, it’s a tradition. It’s almost to the point where I’m not comfortable unless I come here. As the time gets closer to 8 a.m., I’ve got to get to Hawkins. Even on weekends.
Q: Your giving and volunteerism seem to be focused on helping students that face barriers to education. Is that the way you see it?
Education is extremely important. It translates into economic development. It translates into better economic opportunities for people. It opens doors. I have always been a proponent of education across the board.
As I grew up and started working, I learned more about the state of education in this region. At that time the high school dropout rate in our community was very high for Hispanic students, and I first got involved with youth education in the athletic field.
Q: What inspired you to tackle education issues in particular?
That passion and interest was probably initiated when I was a little boy. I mean, even when I was a 3-year-old. Why? Because of my grandmother. She started a neighborhood school way before I was even born.
We lived next door to each other, so I would walk across as a toddler and go to her school – initially because there were a lot of kids I could play with during recess. Eventually I participated in the classes. She would teach reading, writing and arithmetic. As the kids got older, they would go to the regular public schools.
Q: Something like early childhood education before…
…it was even thought about.
That was my first involvement with education. My mother, father and grandmother were always emphasizing education. My brother was the first in the Castro family to get a college degree.
Q: You were the second.
Well, maybe. I would have to research that. Certainly he set that standard. There was no question I was going to go to college one way or another.
As an adult professional, when I learned how high the dropout rate was for Hispanic students, I initiated the HACER scholarship program in 1985.
I felt that was a way to help students continue their education after high school. The idea of the program is to act as a bridge.
It also sends a message to students that there are people who care – that there are people who want you to continue your education and to continue to be successful.
Q: You mentioned the dropout rate. How big a problem is it?
In our region, only 16 percent of high school graduates get an additional degree or certificate six years after high school.
Now, when we stop to think about what the makeup of our area is, 90 percent are Hispanic students. Only 13 percent get additional education after high school. What does that say about our community and the future economic opportunities of our community?
Q: And of Texas, as it tilts more Hispanic.
The future of our community – the future of our state – depends on turning this educational trend around and drastically improving the number of students who come out of high school that are not college ready. Why? More and more the requirements of employers are that people at least have a four-year degree.
Awareness is extremely important. If the community becomes familiar with that, then people will get more excited about it; as they get more excited about it, perhaps they will get more involved and if they get more involved, perhaps we can move the needle.
Q: Why do you think the numbers are so low? Are students not prepared academically or is it more of an affordability issue?
All of the above. If it was easy, it would be resolved already. It’s a very complicated issue with a lot of moving parts. But my thought is, whatever the reasons, we have to hold ourselves accountable for the outcomes.
Q: Your background is similar to many of the students we’re talking about. What was it that helped you go from a high school graduate to a college graduate?
I had challenges, just as did many of my peers. I had people who encouraged me. I already talked about my grandmother. My parents pushed me and my brother set the standard.
But I also had teachers who constantly talked about the importance of education. They also constantly talked about the values and principles that helped guide me.
Q: CREEED committed more than $1 million to help increase the number of college-ready students. How did you all go about deciding what to invest that million in to have the most impact?
What CREEED decided to do was to work with public schools in an effort to increase the number of dual-credit certified teachers so that more students can be enrolled in dual-credit programs. Why? Studies show that if a student gets at least 12 hours of college credit while in high school, they are more likely to enroll in college, stay in college and get a college degree.
The Ysleta and Clint school districts have already implemented that program, and we’re expecting that EPISD will soon. We anticipate them having between 25 and 35 teachers attending this semester, and going forward that will increase.
Hopefully, we can double the number of students that are enrolled in dual-credit classes in the region and continue to increase that number.
We’re focused on traditional public education because that is where most kids are. If the needle is going to move, it’s going to have to be traditional public education that really attacks the educational issues today.
Q: How did CREEED get Girls Who Code to consider El Paso for a chapter?
We were initially exposed to the program by Mary Kipp, CEO of El Paso Electric. Her daughter participated in a Girls Who Code program in San Francisco. She was so impacted by that experience that she told her mom about it. So Mary brought it up during one of our board meetings.
Q: She’s a CREEED board member?
Yes. We became interested in it for several reasons. We know that technology and STEM are a big part of the future, and there are very few women in the technology industry and even fewer Hispanic women.
So we started working with the national Girls Who Code board to authorize a program here and then coordinated with the school districts to implement the program. Ysleta ISD has already started the program at Parkland High School.
Q: Was the $1 million pledged by CREEED raised from individuals locally or are there grants included?
At this point, it’s all local.
Q: Does it encourage you to see people opening their pocketbooks to support the effort?
It’s very exciting. One of the pieces that has been missing has been business people coming together, as a community, to tackle this issue.
The business community has responded and is much more involved. The idea is for the business community to expand that involvement because this is a long-term process.
It’s not all doom and gloom. The challenge is huge, but there are a lot of great initiatives that school districts have put into place. And if we continue to work with the school superintendents and school boards, we can have very positive results.
Q: What have you learned about philanthropy?
You can never do enough, for one. There are huge needs and a lot of worthy programs that all deserve support.
I also have learned that there are not enough people who have achieved financial success that are willing to step up and participate in philanthropy at a significant level. That is one of the very frustrating things for me: to try to work with some of my peers in the Hispanic community.
A lot of them do, and a lot of them give back quietly. I would like to see those same people step up and be more public about it. The more the community knows that there are people doing these kinds of things, it will encourage others to participate.
Q: When did you come to that conclusion? You have been giving back for decades, but had always been quiet about it.
For many years, I did work quietly and did what I could. But the thought came to me that there were others out there that have achieved financial success, and if we bring those people together and we pool our resources, we would be able to do a lot more for the community.
That is what pushed me to start Community en Acción, to bring successful businesspeople and professionals together, specifically Hispanic. I mean, more than 80 percent of the population here is Hispanic, and I felt we could do more working together.
So I recruited successful business people to join CEA with a vision of encouraging the members to pool resources together to give at a higher level.
Q: How successful has that effort been? What has the reception been?
It has had limited success. That is the frustrating part.
Most of us came from low-income backgrounds. We had to work extremely hard and sacrifice, not that non-Hispanics don’t, but we saw what life was like in a low-income environment.
For most of us, education was the first step. The second step was getting involved in entrepreneurial efforts. As the years went by, we grew in our financial success, but it is very difficult to make the switch to giving those resources away.
Q: How do you define personal success?
Wow. Defining success is really up to each individual. For some it could be achieving a certain level in their career. For some it could be giving back to their fellow man. For a high school basketball coach, it may be winning district or winning state.
From my perspective, I am blessed to have achieved the financial levels I have, and because of that, being able to support my family and give back to my community at the same time.
Q: As chair, what is your vision for CREEED?
What we want to see, whether it’s the CREEED organization or the business people involved or community in general, is a lot more students coming out of high school that are college ready, that are career ready and are life ready.
When we say college ready, that is self-explanatory. We want them to be able to succeed in college.
Career ready could be receiving a four-year degree or trade school certificate. Why? Because you will be able to provide a better life for yourself or your family, and you will be in a position to give more back to the community.
Life ready means character development. Education has gotten away from addressing character development, and it is extremely important that education go back to addressing the values and principles that make up good character.
It’s probably more important now than it used to be with both parents having to work, with the number of single parents and the challenges that goes with that.
If you have to work so much just to make ends meet, you’re not going to have the time to impart some of those lessons at home. And if kids aren’t getting it at home and aren’t getting it at school, where are they going to get it?
Kids are in the classroom for hours every day, so it is an ideal place to incorporate character development into the curriculum.
Q: What does your family think about all of this?
They are proud. They understand it. At the same time, they also wish I would cut back on some of the things to have more time. At some time I will, but it seems like every time I say that, a new project comes up.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.