Rose Espinoza with her students
Photo: Kevin Sullivan/Newscom
Almost 16 years ago, when Rose Espinoza and her husband, Eliasar, moved with their 8-year-old son to La Habra, California, a small town east of Los Angeles, the neighborhood was in trouble. "Boys with baseball bats hung out on the corners—and they weren't looking for a pickup game," says 54-year-old Rosie, a recently retired designer at a biomedical firm. "After threats of a drive-by shooting on our street, I thought, What have we gotten our family into?"

The Espinozas started a neighborhood watch group, but the morning after the first meeting, a message was spray-painted on their truck: DON'T FINGER US, KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT. So Rosie took a new tack. In September 1991, she turned her two-car garage into a free after-school elementary through high school tutoring headquarters. "We offered homework help and cookies and lemonade, and 16 kids showed up the first day," recalls Rosie, who recruited high school students as tutors. "It was clear that these kids really wanted to learn." Rosie's Garage transformed the Espinozas' neighborhood: Her tutees increased their writing and math scores an average of more than two grade levels, and residents testify to a noticeable drop in crime. Now four locations serve about 200 children, with donated computers, books, and banners for students who make the honor roll.