The library in William Chignoli's cluttered basement is filled with books and mementos as diverse as their owner. An abstract from an international conference on HIV and AIDS rests on a shelf next to a dog-eared copy of Jesus: God and Man. A photograph of Chignoli and his wife at the White House with former President George W. Bush hangs on one wall; a picture of him offering Communion while dressed in flowing white robes is framed on another.
The library's location is emblematic of its owner's humility. Rather than display in his office the dozens of awards he has received, the diplomas and degrees that grant him the imposing title of Reverend Doctor Chignoli, he keeps them here. He frets that they will intimidate his less-fortunate visitors.
"I no want to show anything. No, too many people come see me have nothing," he says in typically off-kilter English. At age 70 Chignoli speaks seven different languages, and English takes a back seat to his native Italian and the Spanish in which he converses daily.
Chignoli is founder and executive director of Acción Social Communitaria, a nonprofit foundation that provides free mental-health care and other social services for immigrants, primarily Hispanics. He also founded La Clínica, a health center that offers everything from dentistry to gynecology at virtually no cost to its impoverished patients, thanks to the service of volunteer doctors and nurses.
Recently he set his sights on improving education in the Hispanic community. With the goal of shepherding immigrant families from preschool through college, his latest project is as ambitious as any he has undertaken.
It has not gone unnoticed.
In November Chignoli attended a conference at the Seattle home of Bill and Melinda Gates. The guest list included Margaret Spellings, the former U.S. Secretary of Education; the governors of three states; and dozens of nonprofit directors and academics from across the nation. Together they listened as the Gates Foundation unveiled its new strategy for improving the college readiness of underprivileged Americans.
"[The conference] was not talking only about access to college and scholarships," says Chignoli, who's now applying for a Gates Foundation grant. "It was saying we need to work with the community to organize a stronger bond between community organizations and the local educational system. It was very, very interesting."
How did this aging minister end up courting some of the most prominent figures in U.S. education?
"Is simple story," Chignoli says. "But I suppose it's long-time learning process. I learning every day now."
Acción Social's after-school tutoring program is housed on Cherokee Street in the drafty basement of El Torito, a Mexican supermarket and taqueria. Three days a week, Cecilia Soibel, a social worker for the organization, supervises a handful of Saint Louis University students as they work with children ages five through fourteen.
Instruction began in January, but so far only a few families are sending their kids. Seated alone at a plastic table, soft-spoken seventh-grader Oscar Medina types a short story for his English class on a sticker-plastered laptop. Across the room his seven-year-old brother Cesar studiously practices the alphabet while preschooler Hector torments his tutor with a tantrum.
The Medinas' mother, Angeles, is co-owner of the supermarket upstairs and chef at the restaurant that adjoins it. She says the tutoring has helped her eldest son, who does well in subjects like math and science but has always struggled with reading and writing. Now, she's trying to recruit more families to the sessions but is not having much luck.
"They need help, but they don't come," she says in Spanish. "They have an open door, but they are afraid to enter. They are afraid of the immigration service, or to ask for help."
Chignoli's latest project may still be in its infancy here, but it has already enjoyed much broader success elsewhere.
In 2006 Acción Social partnered with the University of Oklahoma and received federal funds from the No Child Left Behind Act to help the state departments of education in Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas and Missouri improve services for migrants and students who speak English as a second language.
The curriculum the partnership created was family-inclusive. One program set out to "make each parent become their child's first teacher," and parents were offered seminars to help them better understand the public school system, learn English and adapt to a new culture.
Soibel, who heads up the initiative in St. Louis, often translates conference calls with school administrators and makes in-home visits to talk about family life and address any school issues. A tenacious Argentinean with close-cropped hair and a voice that snaps children into line, Soibel says the extra support is essential.
"You have to understand in the Hispanic community, especially among Mexicans, many come from small villages," she says. "They went to school through third grade; that's where it stopped for them. Some, they don't know how to write even their own name. They read poorly even in Spanish. So when their kid says, 'I don't want to go to school,' they say, 'OK.'"
According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, Hispanics have a high school dropout rate of 22 percent — among the highest of any ethnic group. Of those who move on to college, barely half complete their undergraduate studies.
The problem is likely to intensify in coming years. Nearly 5.1 million students in the United States — 10 percent of all those enrolled in public schools — are classified as English-language learners, a 60 percent increase from 1995 to 2005.
The language barrier isn't the only obstacle. According to Nahed Chapman, administrator of St. Louis Public Schools' ESOL/Bilingual/Migrant program, the most common causes of the 33 percent dropout rate among the district's 700 or so Hispanic students are family poverty and pregnancy. Chapman says students who are enrolled in the ESOL classes are less likely to leave school — the program's dropout rate is 11 percent — yet many parents are wary of such courses.
"The ESOL program is, by law, voluntary," says Chapman. "We have a good number of families who come from California and Texas that have had bad experiences with bilingual education. As soon as they see ESOL in the title they say, 'No way.'"
Like Acción Social, SLPS has embraced a family-oriented approach to keeping kids in school. Chapman raves about the district's mentor program, which pairs high-achieving Latino high school students with their middle-school counterparts. There's also a social worker devoted exclusively to Hispanic families and a before-school family literacy program that, Chapman says, "puts three generations in the same classroom."
"The list of challenges facing these students is varied," she notes. "But the biggest challenge continues being to have the family economically settled to the extent that it will allow the child to wake up well fed and well clothed."
Chignoli agrees, adding that the same factors prevent many students from pursuing a college degree.
"Some families try to get their kids to become part of the income — they want them to work," he says. "Other times it's adjusting to American culture. When kids go to college, they go out from their home for the first time, and they flying alone. So many are lost in solitude. It's a major problem, and it's very, very difficult to address."
Celso William Chignoli was born in Santa Fe, in northeastern Argentina, in 1939. Like nearly everyone else in Santa Fe, his parents were Italians who fled their native country just before the start of World War II. Chignoli didn't learn Spanish until he enrolled in a public school. The experience stuck with him.
"My commitment with the community is in part something that I learned in that time," he says. "It was the same: Study, learn other language, and sometimes you feel discriminated against because you speak with an accent."
After a childhood split between his parents' home in Santa Fe and his grandmother's house in Italy, Chignoli enrolled in the Argentinean University of Córdoba and completed his bachelor's degree. He wanted to attend medical school in Italy, but the cost was more than his parents could afford.
Chignoli recalls how his extended family met to decide which offspring would receive their support and attend graduate school. His aunts and uncles took a vote and decided they would pool their resources so that he, rather than his cousins or younger brother, could make the move to Italy.
"In my particular case, I suppose that I was a very organized kid," says Chignoli. "I never create problems, I study systematically, I have a very high IQ, and I finish elementary and secondary education quickly. My family think in this perception, and so they support me and not my brother."
Then a characteristic Chignoli punch line: "But my brother really was the more intelligent one."
Chignoli did his residency at a hospital in Argentina and earned his degree in medicine from the University of Rome in 1968. He returned home briefly before deciding he wanted to go back to Europe and study pediatrics. He ended up in Paris at the International Organization for Radio and Television, where he became interested in the emerging field of telemedicine.
"At that time was a very unique thing. We have no computer developments at that time, but we have connections with satellites and fax machines," Chignoli explains. "The idea was to use that technology to have control over patients and stay informed about their health so that we can make follow-ups and provide diagnosis and second opinions to people living in remote areas."
After working in television production for several years, he took a position with the telemedicine department of Miami Children's Hospital. It would change his life completely. (As fate would have it, Chignoli's brother, who'd lost out in the graduate-school sweepstakes, also went to work in the television industry; Chignoli says he went on to make a fortune producing commercials for Kodak in Chile and Argentina.)
"In 1979 we receive proposal from the World Health Organization to study and work on the HIV disease, only back then we have no name for it," Chignoli says. "It was a pandemic, and the problem was that the disease was spreading faster than communication."
At the outset Chignoli's job consisted of translating HIV studies, lectures and research papers from scientists at the World Health Organization and then distributing the findings to health organizations and government agencies. But as AIDS awareness increased, so did the demand for instantaneous information. In 1987 the WHO and Miami Children's Hospital partnered with an organization called Casals and Associates to produce the first Pan American Teleconference on AIDS.
Top researchers from around the world gathered in Quito, Ecuador, to discuss what countries could do to help curb the spread of the illness and the chances of discovering a cure. Their deliberations were broadcast live in four languages to more than 45,000 healthcare workers in 30 countries.
"It was kind of a huge advance at that time. We didn't have the Internet," says Dan Epstein, a member of the Pan American Health Organization's media team who worked on the project. "We had to rent satellite time and arrange for uplinks and downlinks and get the ministers of health to dedicate rooms and invite people to see it on big screen. We had two-way links so ministers could ask questions of the main scientists who were speaking. It was very innovative at the time."
Chignoli helped coordinate the conference, arranging technical aspects in addition to producing a video that summarized the main points of the proceedings.
"He was kind of the scientific adviser, the doctor we had who was on the media side making sure what we were saying and doing was making sense," Epstein says.
"He was a leader," says Beatriz Casals, founder of Casals and Associates and Chignoli's supervisor at the time. "He had the creative juices and innovation to try ideas that no one else would have wanted to even talk about or try because they were not willing to take the risks. He guaranteed that things would go fine. With him there was a constant belief and just a sense of calmness that all was going to be well if we tried and did our best."
More conferences were held in Venezuela and Brazil. Beyond coordinating the broadcasts, Chignoli produced educational videos about how the disease affected people around the world. Seeing firsthand the devastating toll of AIDS began to have a profound impact on him.
"The experience working with HIV was very difficult experience for digest," Chignoli says. "You develop relationship with somebody and they die in months. You see sometime somebody with HIV dying? It's terrible. At that time, when you make the diagnosis, the life of the person is less than one year. Now it's fifteen."
Casals remembers the burden Chignoli began to feel. "We were all worried about what impact our effort would have," she says. "Were we getting the message out? Were we making a difference? Some things we did were pretty impactful, but the situation was grim, especially since we were dealing with the developing world. He was saddened by that and wondered, 'Are we really making a difference?"
"At the end of 1990 in particular, I came back from Brazil and [after seeing] so many women that have babies that were infected, I talked to my wife. I said, 'Here is something that I don't understand,'" Chignoli recalls. "People said, 'It's punishment from God,' but God does not work in this way. It's like a torture. It's terrible. Finally I said, 'I need to know what really happened in between God and myself in relation to the illness.'"
Taking a sabbatical from his job, Chignoli enrolled part-time in a theological seminary. Casals says Chignoli's decision surprised her. Her colleague had never made an issue of his religious beliefs.
"It was the kind of faith you could actually see, but not the kind of faith that he was constantly talking about it," she recalls. "It was evident from his behavior, how he dealt with others. He was kind and gentle, more so than others around him. The way he absorbed criticism was done with such charisma and elegance and in such a gentlemanly way. You could always see in him, he was a true, true gentleman."
Within a year Chignoli had enrolled at Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves.
Chignoli arrived in St. Louis in January of 1993 at the age of 53. He and his wife, Conchita, a Cuban refugee whom he met during his time in Miami, took up residency in an apartment on Eden's campus. To compensate for his weak grasp of English, he'd record lectures and then have his wife translate them. The same went for his essays, which he composed in Spanish.
"He had a winsome personality, and as you might expect, he was very intelligent and engaging," recalls Clint McCann, a professor at Eden. "My class is an intersection of biblical studies, contemporary culture, justice and meeting human need. I think that engaged him. He followed the logic and imperative of that out into the community."
On weekends Chignoli began accompanying another Spanish-speaking Eden faculty member on missionary trips to a small town outside Indianapolis. The city was home to a turkey-processing plant and a large Mexican community that worked at the facility. Struck by the destitute conditions in which the workers lived, he began to seek out the Hispanic community in St. Louis.
"We found such nice people in such dire circumstances — children with gray teeth from malnutrition," Conchita Chignoli recalls. "We'd visit their homes, and William would always ask to go to the bathroom. I was so embarrassed when he did that. These people were poor and already nervous about having company. I finally asked him, Why don't you just go before? He says, 'I need to find out if they have a toothbrush or soap.' What he was doing then, I realize now, was making an inventory of what their needs were."
In 1993 Chignoli formed Acción Social to help address some of the most pressing problems. He shared office space in Vinita Park with another mom-and-pop nonprofit group and paid for many of the costs out of his own pocket.
"Always my more important service was mental health, behavioral," Chignoli says now. "But at the same time, so many people coming, refugees and people that need food, clothing and other things. So at the same time, I begin to envision the future of everything."
In December 1994 Chignoli graduated from the seminary with a master's degree in divinity. He recalls sitting at the commencement ceremony and telling his wife they could return to Miami and their eight children (six of whom come from a previous marriage), who by then had started families of their own.
"I said, 'OK, this is the diploma, we ready to go back to Florida,'" Chignoli says. "She says, 'Ah, great. After that what happens to the people you've helped? Keep the apartment on campus till July, continue to work, and transfer [the organization] to someone else.'
"A successor never appeared. I gave up searching."
With Chignoli free to devote all his time to Acción Social, the organization flourished. The headquarters were moved to an office on Manchester Avenue in the heart of the city. The state and the City of St. Louis Mental Health Board contributed funds. Services have since expanded to include hot meals delivered to the elderly, flu shots and vaccinations, counseling for alcoholism and domestic violence, and even chiropractic treatment.
Determined to improve access to medical care for poverty-stricken immigrants, Chignoli founded La Clínica in 1996. Initially a subsidiary of Acción Social, it is located in the basement of the Scruggs Memorial United Methodist Church on Fairview Avenue, just west of South Grand Boulevard.
In its early stages, the clinic relied on volunteer doctors and nurses from the medical schools at Saint Louis University and Washington University. Patients paid what they could and were often treated with the free samples given to the doctors by pharmaceutical-company salesmen.
"It was the most rewarding thing — to see people who needed help so badly finally get it," says Alfonso Menotti, a psychologist who began volunteering at the center after he retired from practice. "I worked at a hospital for 44 years, but the best check I ever got from a patient was a little old lady I saw twice [at La Clínica]. She paid me with a box of chocolates and a hug and said, 'Thank you.'"
For tax reasons, La Clínica and Acción Social were split into separate entities in 2003, each with its own board of directors. Finding enough money to cover the costs of providing free healthcare was always an issue, and Chignoli concedes that at times the clinic was not financially solvent.
"It's very difficult," he says. "How you keep [La Clínica] in the black when all the money you need is supposed to come from poor people?"
La Clínica's board began to question the direction of the organization. Chignoli wanted to turn the facility into a so-called Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC), a move that might have opened the door to substantial government funding in the long run but was costly and difficult to accomplish in the short term.
"Whatever your greatest strength is, it is also your greatest weakness," says Barbara Willock, a La Clínica board member who opposed Chignoli's plan. "In terms of charisma and the ability to envision things that can happen when everybody else says 'no way,' William is totally off the charts. In terms of administration and keeping an organization viable financially, well, that's the other side of his strength. [The federal money] was a pipe dream. It was never, ever going to happen."
The situation gradually came to a head. Administrators and staff questioned whether Chignoli, 67 at the time, had overstretched himself by attempting to manage two organizations simultaneously. Chignoli has never been licensed to practice medicine in the United States, so some suggested a certified medical doctor ought to run the clinic. Others simply disliked the fact that he was exacting of his volunteer staff, which had come to include several of the top physicians in the area.
"He has a bad reputation with some doctors," says Acción Social's Cecilia Soibel. "It's a mix of his Spanish and Italian genes — those are very strong personalities. He's dealing with people who are volunteers — doctors and nurses — and he likes to impose on them what he wants them to do. If they don't do it, he gets upset and it's very stressful. He has to realize they are volunteers — they don't get paid, he forgets that. But everything he demands of them he does himself. He lives by his own standards."
Fed up with the state of affairs, Chignoli parted ways with La Clínica in December 2005.
"I thought he'd never let go of the clinic, he loved that place," Conchita Chignoli says. "But it's like having a baby: You look at how it's growing and at some point you say, 'This child doesn't need breast milk anymore.' The health part was already established. He started to look at assimilation and federal education programs. He discovered other needs."
By 2005 Acción Social had been slowly expanding its education services for several years. But it took that long for Chignoli to begin to see potential in No Child Left Behind, which favors faith-based organizations such as his. If he couldn't find federal funding for La Clínica, he was determined to get it for an education project.
Before long Acción Social was awarded its contract with the University of Oklahoma to revamp the ESL curriculum for schools across the Midwest. When the deal expired last year, Chignoli assumed his work on such a broad scale was finished.
Then in November the Gates Foundation came calling. The two-day program to which Chignoli was invited was entitled, "College Readiness and Completion: Redefining Opportunity in America."
Since 2000 the Gates Foundation has poured nearly $4 billion into scholarships, high school remodeling, teacher training and other forms of assistance for education efforts nationwide. The November forum gathered lawmakers, educators and nonprofit directors to "develop a new strategic framework for our investments.'"
Chignoli says he was nervous but never intimidated during all-day discussions with the conference's esteemed attendees. He quickly developed a bond with NPR and FOX News correspondent Juan Williams, who moderated one of the panels.
"My sense was that he had a deep concern over the issue," says Williams, who'll visit St. Louis June 19 to speak at an Acción Social fundraiser. "I think that for Chignoli and me, there was this unanimous sentiment of, 'Thank God, let's get on the same page and challenge some of the orthodoxy that has locked up the conversation about education in this country and closed our eyes to the fact that that people aren't getting educated, especially in minority communities.'"
Chignoli gave a presentation, titled "What We Can Do Together," that outlined his previous work in education, his insights on the problems facing poor Hispanic students and his goals to expand Acción Social's family-education and after-school tutoring and mentoring programs.
"Hispanic, limited English-proficient students attend school on a 'survival' basis," he told attendees. "They have to deal in acquiring a second language, understanding the concepts being taught in the classroom, as well as seldom being able to participate in the school life, thus almost never reaching a sense of belonging within their academic environment. [We want to] work with adolescents and young people in their efforts to adapt to a new culture and become professionals that would form the responsible workforce of tomorrow."
When he returned to his hotel, Chignoli regaled his wife with descriptions of the billionaire's extravagant home, particularly a private library that he says included original works from Da Vinci and a letter from Abraham Lincoln. Conchita, in turn, teased him about his old tactics for assessing the needs of poor families:
"I asked him: Did you ask to go to the bathroom?"
Now Chignoli is waiting to hear if the Gates Foundation will help expand Acción Social's tutoring program. Assessing his prospects, Chignoli says simply, "It's another — how can I say? — God function."
Not long before Chignoli resigned as director of La Clínica in December 2005, he and his wife received a jaw-dropping piece of mail: an invitation to the annual White House Christmas gala. A $500 donation to Acción Social was enclosed, paid with a check from George W. Bush's personal bank account in Dallas.
Acción Social had been the recipient of thousands of federal dollars during Bush's first term in office. Chignoli speculates that the President was simply rewarding his foundation for its service, the same as he did for the hundreds of other groups that attended the White House festivities that December.
The trip is commemorated in the framed picture of him beside his wife of nineteen years. Chignoli wears a three-piece navy suit ("My wife says I'd go to the beach in a tie," he jokes) and thick, wire-framed glasses and beams from beneath his halo of snow-white hair.
It's just one of dozens of keepsakes he keeps tucked away in his basement. There's also the photo of him dressed in a reverend's garb, reading from the Bible at a pulpit. Chignoli is an ordained Methodist minister but he rarely delivers sermons. (Every so often he offers Communion and leads a service at Scruggs.)
"He's not what you call a Sunday preacher," his wife says. "In his service, that's how he preaches."
He recently entered his eighth decade, but he still works tirelessly.
"He's a workaholic," says Soibel. "Seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Even when he sleeps, he dreams about work — he gets up in the middle of the night and calls and sends me e-mails with ideas he has or things he remembers."
A large portion of his time is spent in Acción Social's administrative offices in Brentwood, reassuring would-be donors to his cause that they won't get in trouble for contributing to an organization whose clients are often undocumented immigrants.
He must also persuade the immigrants that they won't get deported if they seek help, which is mostly administered out of a small clinic on South Grand. He says at times it's frustrating to see people who have fallen on hard times refuse assistance.
"People try to keep their individualism and confidence regarding what they are doing," he says. "If somebody need help, they don't go to neighbor, but maybe they to go some organization that maybe provide what they need."
Asked what advice he would give to someone who admires the life he's led but is daunted by the selfless example he sets, Chignoli replies, "They need to see inside themselves and be confident and go ahead. This is the only answer.
"When you believe that you have something inside you that says, 'I don't know,' you need to see inside yourself and be confident."