Leo Garcia has been honored for his dedication to helping ­Hispanic people in the tree fruit industry to reach their full potential through education.

Garcia, director of bilingual agricultural education programs at Wenatchee Valley College in Wenatchee, Washington received the Latino Leadership Award from the Washington State Horticultural Association.

Karen Lewis, Washington State University Extension specialist, said Garcia is a humble person who has quietly dedicated himself to ­helping Hispanic people integrate into the industry and the community.

“He knows that education is the foundation for how well they integrate in central Washington, and rise above, and become all they can be.”

Garcia has led the college’s Hispanic Orchard Employee Education Program since its inception 20 years ago. Although he emphasizes the importance of learning English in order to succeed in this country, language proficiency is not a prerequisite to ­taking the program.

“There are other people who would have said, ‘Learn English and come back, and we will teach you horticulture,’” Lewis said.

Many of the Mexican students received very limited education in their own country, and, because of the lack of opportunities in their younger years, they tend to place a huge value on education.

Lewis, who helped launch the Spanish language session at the Hort Association’s annual meeting, said many of the people who attend the session have told her they see Garcia and other successful Hispanics in the industry as role models.

Royal City orchardist Dain Craver said the HOEEP ­students feel the same way. “They idolize Leo.”

Craver estimates he’s had 20 to 25 of his employees go through the program and has seen big improvements in their English.

“The biggest thing I remember them saying to me after they went through that first year was they didn’t realize how much money it cost to run an orchard,” he said. “It made them more cost-conscious on any job they’re doing. In the orchard industry, labor is half of our cost. If we can save a little bit of money by doing things ­differently, that’s the way it should go.”

Over the years, the industry’s work force has changed to the point that it is now probably 95 percent Hispanic, including many orchard managers, Craver estimates.

“This is what Leo’s program did,” he said. “It enabled Hispanics to become assistant managers and managers of orchards.

“I was so happy that Leo got the award,” he said. “It’s well deserved. He’s put a lot of time and effort into helping these guys.”

Craver said some of the employees he’s had go through the program have used their improved skills to get jobs elsewhere, but Craver wants them to advance in their lives.

“If someone gives them a chance to benefit themselves, I give them a glowing recommendation letter and let them go. I hate to lose good workers, but at the same time if they get opportunities, I can’t see holding them back.”