Gone But Not Forgotten: Giving Thanks, One Photo At A Time

August 2, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

The Angels Support Group has been busy putting up photos in a senior center conference room that doubles as a museum filled with artifacts chronicling the center’s history. The small room is now also home to a new memorial the group hopes will help preserve the legacy of giving by volunteers who have passed away.

Most of the old-timers who started the park’s programs are gone now, says Chris Mojica, a long time volunteer at Ruben Salazar Park in unincorporated East Los Angeles.

If it were up to him, everyone who uses the center would know the names of the people whose hard work, sacrifice and love helped make Salazar Park a vibrant community center.

Located in the heart of East L.A on Whittier Boulevard, Salazar Park is a place where people can come together and share good times, learn new skills, and even work on ways to influence elected officials by registering voters and sending letters on issues they deem important, the 86-year-old Mojica told EGP.

“It seems like just yesterday our park was called Laguna Park,” recalled Angel Support Group members in an email to EGP. They said most of the people who use the park aren’t aware it was at the center of one of the most important events in the fight for civil rights by Latinos in East Los Angeles, the Chicano Moratorium. Nor do they know its name was changed to honor Ruben Salazar, the journalist killed by Sherriff deputies during the Chicano Moratorium in 1970.

But the park’s legacy is not just about that moment in history, emphasizes Mojica, it’s really about the people who took it upon themselves to make sure services and activities are available to young and old in the Eastside, whether he or she was born in the U.S. or is an immigrant, speaks English, Spanish, or both.

Salazar Park volunteer Ray Guerrero uses his cane as a pointer, as one by one Angeles Support Group members names the volunteers whose photos have made it on to the memorial wall. (EGP photo by Gloria Alvarez-August 1, 2017)

Salazar Park volunteer Ray Guerrero uses his cane as a pointer, as one by one Angeles Support Group members names the volunteers whose photos have made it on to the memorial wall. (EGP photo by Gloria Alvarez-August 1, 2017)

If you live in a working class community and don’t have very much money, there aren’t always as many resources available, and those there are aren’t always the best. That’s why Salazar Park is so important to this community, said Ray Guerrero, 71, who has been lobbying the county parks department to include a variety of new amenities when it remodels the recreation center later this year.

It’s due to the generosity of a long list of volunteers that  “we have dancing, Pop Warner football and all kinds of sports,” ESL classes and other activities, the group said.

The Angels Support Groups is under the umbrella of the Friends of Salazar Park, a decades old volunteer organization dedicated to making the County of Los Angeles-run recreational facility a place where families feel comfortable gathering, and seniors feel wanted and respected. The Angels group was formed about a year and a half ago to provide emotional support and comfort to seniors as they face the challenges of growing old.

When someone doesn’t show up for a while, “we call to make sure he or she is okay. When a member of the group gets ill, we visit the person, sometimes at their home, but more often than not at a hospital or nursing home,” said 61-year-old Sylvia Ortiz. Sometimes there are too many people to fit into the van provided by the park to transport the volunteers, Ortiz said, adding, “It feels good to give back, to help others.”

Call it nostalgia or just wanting not to be forgotten, but these days there’s a sense of urgency in their efforts to memorialize their time and work at Salazar Park.

“We’ve lost some of the best friends Salazar Park ever had over the last few years and we just want people to know their names,” Mojica said, sharing with EGP a list of some of those who were around for decades giving of their time, energy and whatever resources they could muster before they passed.

Many on the list are honored with a photo on of the walls of the senior center.

On Tuesday, Guerrero used his cane as a pointer, as one by one they named the volunteers whose photos have made it on to the memorial wall. Ortiz joked that volunteer music instructor Marcelo Vasquez has left room for more photos, but she doesn’t want her picture up there anytime soon.

There’s Gabriela Salazar, or Gaby as most people knew her, a spitfire of a woman who volunteered at the center five days a week for over 30 years, teaching Zumba, organizing field trips, serving Thanksgiving dinner and giving out toys to the area’s many low-income families. Big in heart and full of energy, Gaby was always there.

Richard Romero, Audry Torres, Sergio Murga, Rosa Portillo and Elena Camargo all gave of their time and will be missed, so will former park director Dora Montijo.

Jonathan Sanchez, EGP’s COO and associate publisher who passed away in late December, has also earned a place on the wall at Salazar Park. “He gave us so many beautiful stories and donated money to our senior center,” the group said.

“All these wonderful people who gave so much, not only to our senior center but Salazar Park, have left us, but they are not forgotten,” the group said.

Memorial Wall photos of some of the men and women who spent decades volunteering to help Salazar Park in unincorporated East Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy Angel Support Group August 1, 2017)

Memorial Wall photos of some of the men and women who spent decades volunteering to help Salazar Park in unincorporated East Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy Angel Support Group August 1, 2017)

We owe them a lot, said Ortiz, who says she plans to follow their good example.

“What they gave came from the goodness in their souls,” added Vasquez.

A plaque on the wall, written in Spanish, recognizes their service and departure from this world:

“Thank you for all you have done for us. Rest in peace.”

East L.A. Seniors Work Together to Fight Depression, Loneliness

July 14, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

The setting was casual, from the coffee and Mexican bread on the table, to the prayer recited in both English and Spanish to get the meeting started.

The men and women, most of them elderly, Latino and low-income, had gathered July 7 at the Ruben Salazar Park Senior Center in East Los Angeles to share their life experiences. It was the first official meeting of the “Angels Support Group,” a volunteer effort to help seniors dealing with depression, loneliness and isolation. It’s a form of group therapy among friends, is how one person described the meeting.

Lea este artículo en Español: Personas Mayores del Este de Los Ángeles Luchan Contra la Depresión y la Soledad

Shy at first, one by one, speaking mostly in Spanish, they shared their personal stories of pain.

Participants were told they could talk about anything and for many that meant digging into long time feelings of grief. For others, it was a chance to help someone by sharing ways to cope and move past the pain.

“My daughter died 11 years ago and I still cry over her death,” said Rosa Perez.

For years, I cried over my mother’s death, then one day she appeared to me in a dream and told me not to suffer anymore, shared Manuela Tlatenchi. “Tears don’t allow the dead to rest in peace,” she reflected.

“I felt depressed until I started volunteering and giving back to my community,” said Marcelo Vazquez, a volunteer instructor at the park.

Chris Mojica just celebrated his 85th birthday. He’s a long time senior center volunteer and co-leader of the Angels Support Group and says he personally knows of at least 20 seniors who died at home alone.

“They are elders who have family, but at the same time they [are all alone] because they don’t visit each other,” he said. The seniors “feel really sad and they stay home waiting to die,” he lamented.

According to the California Department of Aging (CDA), California has one of the fastest growing populations in the country. Los Angeles County’s elder population is nearly 1,190,000, according to the CDA. Of those, about 718,000 are minorities and 188,000 live alone.

(EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

(EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

By 2020, it’s estimated that 14% of the country’s seniors (60 and older) will live in California.
Seeking mental health services or grief counseling is rare for elderly Latinos.

The idea for the senior support group came from talking to so many older people at the center who seemed depressed or were very sick, said Mojica.

Depression is a problem that needs to be addressed with love and compassion, adds Ray Guerrero, another long time volunteer and group co-leader. “Laughing out loud is great therapy,” he pointed out.

The group plans to meet Thursday mornings at Salazar Park. About 20 people attended the first gathering last week. As part of the “group therapy,” seniors are encouraged to get out more and take part in recreational activities with other members. It doesn’t matter if they choose to take a knitting class, work in one of the gardens outside the senior center, learn to play guitar or just socialize with their fellow elders, because the goal is just to keep the seniors busy.

An important component of the new group is keeping track of one another when away from the center. They’ve formed a phone tree of sorts, and members are encouraged to call other members regularly to see how they are doing. The group will also visit or send cards to seniors who wind up in the hospital or a convalescent home.

A $5 monthly donation—not required but suggested—will help pay for outings to museums, the zoo and the movies.

Seniors form circle of prayer at first meeting of Angels Support Group at Salazar Park. (EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

Seniors form circle of prayer at first meeting of Angels Support Group at Salazar Park. (EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

Every month the group will celebrate the birthdays taking place that month, said Mojica, adding that they rely on volunteers and donations to make things happen.

As with many new groups, the Angels Support Group must still overcome a number of management issues, such as keeping track of donations and planning field trips.

Our plans are big, but the need is bigger than what we can do on our own, said 71-year-old Guerrero. “We have the ideas, but we don’t have the strength” or know how to carry some of the ideas through, Guerrero said. “We need help from [younger] volunteers and we need donations from people and from our (elected) representatives,” he added.

Participants at the first Angels Support Group meeting said they are excited about the new venture and hope more people will start attending.

“Not everybody feels comfortable with the group and they don’t [yet] feel the need to be part of it,” explained Guerrero. “But it is always good to laugh and talk to other people because we tend to feel alone sometimes,” he noted.

“I could be fishing now, I could be doing something else, but I’d rather be here and help the group,” said Guerrero with a smile. “I like this center.”

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