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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Rudolfo Rodriguez

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-01-23

When he was begging as a child on the streets of his native Bogota, Rudolfo Rodriguez often vowed that he would flee Colombia and make a new life for himself in America.

"I had every incentive to be a criminal," Mr. Rodriguez said. "All around me were other kids who were being trained to pick pockets, and do other bad things. But I swore that I would never be poor again. And I swore that I would try and help young people to get educated, instead of turning to crime in the streets."

He was born to a wealthy banker, Luis Carlos Rodriguez, who abandoned Mr. Rodriguez's mother Lula and her six children, leaving them destitute. The children were forced to share a bed with their mother at night, and during the day they were supplicants in the tough, druglord-dominated streets of Bogota.

Mr. Rodriguez eventually made his way to Miami as an illegal immigrant - one of nearly 3 million who enter America each year - and later settled in Connecticut. He was 18 years old.

Now, three decades later, Mr. Rodriguez has fulfilled the promises he made to himself in Bogota. In collaboration with his brother Orlando, he runs a limousine service in Connecticut, ferrying CEOs and celebrities. His earlier work in real-estate and the restaurant industry fetched enough funds to educate his daughters, Nicolle, Karla and Trystan.

But, perhaps even more importantly, Mr. Rodriguez said, his hard-won status as a successful American citizen has enabled him to create a fund through which he supports the rehabilitation and education of children - particularly those with deformities - in 10 countries, including Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Venezuela, Mexico, Panama and Mexico.

"And, of course, also in America - my wife Gloria and I contribute to the work of several children's agencies," Mr. Rodriguez said.

They also host two children from a Latin American country at their home each year, usually for a period of 8 to 10 months. (This year he has brought over two youths from Colombia and Ecuador.) These children are offered medical care, and also education.

The children are also encouraged to pursue their hobbies. One 12-year-old Colombian boy, who was missing his hands and feet, learned to paint by holding a brush between his teeth. Mr. Rodriguez sold 40 paintings on his behalf.

What happens to the children he brings across to America?

"They are sent back home to build their lives there," Mr. Rodriguez said. "But that's where the problem really lies - you can give all the care and love, and money, in the world, but there needs to be a follow-up."

Which is why he also makes modest donations to support local teachers, particularly in Colombia.

"The sums are small - but in Latin America, money sent from here goes a long way," Mr. Rodriguez said, adding that he has also been able to buy used computers and have them installed in Colombian schools. "Sometimes my efforts go in vain because of the conditions back home. But I am a crusader. I long for the day when the exodus of young talent from poor countries ends. Otherwise everyone from Latin America will come here - and then what?"

"I may not be a prince - but I can hold my own against many wealthy businessmen who talk a lot about curing poverty and illiteracy, but do little about it," Mr. Rodriguez said.

One such figure was his father, who'd left the family in Mr. Rodriguez's childhood. Not long ago, he traced him to a hospice in Bogota. The elder Mr. Rodriguez had lost all his wealth and had become penniless.

"I told my father that, in a way, I was glad that he abandoned his family," Mr. Rodriguez said. "Because we would never have been able to come to America otherwise."

It was the last time that Mr. Rodriguez saw his father. A day or two later, the old man died.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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