In one of the more successful tales of community support, the upcoming Battle of the Beans can brag that it is raising a fourth of the $300,000 generated for college scholarships for 100 Latino students over the past eight years.

In one of the more successful tales of community support, the upcoming Battle of the Beans can brag that it is raising a fourth of the $300,000 generated for college scholarships for 100 Latino students over the past eight years.

The food gala at 6 p.m., Friday, June 24, offers the best dishes from the valley's Mexican restaurants, with cocktails — and trophies in the areas of best beans, best salsa and best entree. It's at the Historic Ashland Armory and, says Chela Sanchez, president of the Latino Scholarship Fund, will feature great food for a great cause.

The fund started in 2003 with gifts from a half-dozen major benefactors. When those sources reduced contributions amid the recent economic downturn, says Chavez, members formed a team of people with the assignment of finding 10 people, from whom they could find $50 each. They raised $7,000 in the first year.

Then members of the fundraising team, during a brainstorming session, joked that one dependable fundraising attraction is always Mexican food, so why not build an annual event around that?

"People are always asking where's the best Mexican restaurant with the really authentic cooking and we always tell them 'in my mother's kitchen,'" joked Sanchez, adding that area Mexican restaurants are in the same league.

Even with the recession, the food gala idea worked fabulously, as Judy Gutierrez, a nurse at Rogue Valley Medical Center, and Filiberto Bencomo, Latino programs coordinator at Rogue Community College, will testify. Each was awarded $5,000 from the fund and put it toward earning bachelor's degrees from Southern Oregon University.

The fund, says Bencomo, helps students over the big hurdle of being in a transitional generation, in a new country, having parents who love and support them and urge them onto higher education but who lack funds and education themselves.

"Our parents come here looking for work and what they know is farming," says Bencomo. "But they know that, in the U.S., education will get you far. The parents don't understand the homework, so you already have that disadvantage. They support and love you but they don't have the financial support."

With the current round of scholarships, the fund will have helped more than 100 students, some with grants as high as $20,000, says Chavez.

"It starts with the idea that Latinos want to go to school. My parents were migrant farm workers. They wanted a better life for their kids than was possible in Mexico. I had a lot of people here helping me," says Chavez, pointing to Education Service District, the SOU Diversity Scholarship and Pell Grant.

Fund members keep tabs on scholarship grantees through the years and invite them to work with younger students.

"I was a junior counselor, then senior counselor and, now, a teacher at Academia Latina at SOU, which helps students get motivated and oriented to college," says Gutierrez, taking a break from her work as a general medical nurse at RVMC. "The money went for tuition and books and helped also with living expenses — and giving back is, for me, an important part of it all."

Born in Salem, Gutierrez said her parents worked the strawberry fields and, one day, showed her brochures about migrant education, with kids graduating from college.

"They said to me, 'I want you to be in those pictures someday' — and I am." Tickets for Battle of the Beans are available at http://solsf.org/events.html or at the door. Cost is $30 per person or $50 for a couple.

Food will include pollo a la crema, fajitos, tacos, tostados and more. The no-host cocktail of the evening is a paloma, which is tequila in grapefruit juice with fresh, squeezed lime and rock salt.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.