José A. Quiñonez, who runs a San Francisco nonprofit that helps low-income people build a credit history and pay down debt, began life in poverty in Mexico, the son of a mother and father he had only briefly.
His father, a cattle rancher, was killed when Quiñonez was 2. His mother died a few years later of lymphoma, which she never received treatment for because of a lack of access to medical resources.
His struggles in Mexico and, later, the United States, shaped a resolve to help others going through difficult times.
That has led Quiñonez to do everything from advocating for immigrants when he was a college student to founding in 2007 the Mission Asset Fund, or MAF, which has helped thousands of people establish their creditworthiness with more than $6 million in loans since its inception.
The success of MAF has earned Quiñonez one of the fellowships awarded annually by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for exceptional “originality, insight and potential.”
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Known also as the “genius award,” the MacArthur fellowship comes with a no-strings-attached gift of $625,000, distributed over five years.
Quiñonez, 45, who is one of 23 people to receive the award this year, said he still is stunned by receiving the honor.
"I’m doing my happy dance,” Quiñonez said to Fox News Latino. “It’s a high honor. It’s a lot to take in. I’m thrilled that we’re getting this recognition.”
It’s a remarkable milestone for anyone but particularly for a man of Quiñonez’s humble origins, and for a man who arrived in the U.S. in 1980 after an under-the-radar journey across the border when he was just 9 years old and newly orphaned.
“I remember having lots of friends, lots of cousins,” Quiñonez said about his early years in Mexico. “My mom raised six kids all by herself – three brothers and three sisters.”
“She was a devoted person,” he recalled. “She had strong faith, she loved us deeply. Even her last day, she was making sure we stayed together. People were coming to see her, saying, ‘I’ll take this [child],’ and ‘I’ll take that one.’ She said, ‘You take one, you take them all.”
And he never felt deprived or disadvantaged during those times.
“Later in life I realized our situation” was dire, Quiñonez said.
He and his siblings were brought across the border by relatives who wanted them to have a better life than what they had in Mexico.
Quiñonez and his relatives were among the millions of undocumented immigrants who came out of the shadows through President Ronald Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.
He went to the University of California, Davis, and then to Princeton University, where he earned his master’s degree in public affairs.
Quiñonez had considered being a doctor, recalling his mother’s suffering during her illness, but he was terrible at chemistry and other sciences in school, and realized that he could still help people through community work and non-profit organizations.
Lower-income people, he thought, could get a chance at a better life if they could just become part of the mainstream financial world, but many lacked a credit history.
“I decided to work against poverty,” Quiñonez said. “I wanted to help give [people] opportunities so they could live out their lives. I found my passion in social change, which I could do without becoming an actual doctor.”
Quiñonez found that many programs aimed at helping low-income people get rid of debt and build credit were patronizing to their clients.
“There’s a notion that poor people need more financial literacy, about how to balance their budget, how to pay their bills,” he said. “There’s an assumption that they don’t make the right decisions. Those assumptions lead to bad policies and bad programs.”
What Quiñonez knew first-hand about the poor was that many are actually quite sophisticated about finances.
“They know more about finances than most of us do,” he said. “They navigate multiple currencies, manage multiple households across different countries. They informally come together to lend money to one another.”
With MAF, those so-called “lending circles” that are already common in many immigrant communities were duplicated and given a more formal structure, with each person’s financial activity reported to credit bureaus.
What began with a handful of people in California obtaining a small loan – free of fees and interest – has mushroomed into a program covers more than a dozen states.
Many immigrants have used MAF to start businesses, buy homes or help finance the cost of becoming a naturalized citizen, among other things.
In less than a year, many poor people who had no previous credit history were able to get credit scores of 600 or more, and over time – often in less than one year -- to improve their scores by well over 150 points.
“We took their activity and formalized it,” Quiñonez said, adding that each person was treated with respect in the process.
“It’s appreciating the ingenuity that they have, trying to survive and to thrive, instead of assuming, ‘You guys don’t know anything.’”
He added about his clients, “They’re honorable people.”
Quiñonez still isn’t sure what he will do with the MacArthur’s cash prize – he’s still stunned.
One of the causes closest to his heart is comprehensive immigration reform. He would like to see others get the opportunities that he and his siblings – who all became professionals – had “to unleash their human potential.”
But the one thing that he keeps coming back to is a parent who didn’t live to see him get the award.
“I know my mother is proud,” he said. “I’ve always known that she’s always with me.”
Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.