Not a holiday goes by without the Friends of Salazar Park (FSPS) senior volunteers reaching out to local needy families to make their celebration just a little more enjoyable. The nonprofit, all volunteer group, continued the tradition last Saturday, April 13, giving out baskets of food they collected or donated, and hams provided by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Pictured: The Cabrera family (center) receives food and other gifts from volunteers, including: FSPS lead advisor Chris Mojica, FSPS volunteers Sylvia Ortiz, Guadalupe Romero, and Angelina Gonzalez; Deputy Jerry Garcia and Jaime Rodriguez with the LULAC-Greater LA County Council.
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.
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.
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.”
A devoted group of 80-somethings served plates of turkey, slices of pie and cups of coffee to hundreds of Eastside families during a Thanksgiving luncheon Saturday at Ruben F. Salazar Park in East Los Angeles.
For decades, members of the Friends of Salazar Park – a volunteer group made up almost exclusively of senior citizens – have donated their time to put on special events at the park like their annual Thanksgiving luncheon and Christmas toy-giveaway.
Lea este artículo en Español: Personas de la Tercera Edad con Décadas de Experiencia en Ayudar
They can’t recall how many free meals they’ve served, or toys they have handed out, but both are in the thousands. But these volunteers don’t just come out once or twice a year, in fact, most volunteer year-round, Monday through Friday and can claim credit for many, if not most, of the activities offered at the county park. Months of planning go into the big events, from finding food donors like Steve Munoz at Dolores Canning to setting up the decorations and getting the word out to the community.
But the recent passing of one of the club’s original members, Gabriela Salazar (no relation to journalist Ruben Salazar for whom the park is named), has some seniors feeling it may be time for them to take it easy and let others do their part to keep park programs going.
Gabby, as her friends called her, and described by some as the soul of the club, helped set the groundwork, as did 84-year-old Chris Mojica.
But now “It’s time to pass the baton,” Mojica says.
“We used to have over 50 members, now we’re down to about 20 and half of them are sick,” he lamented.
When Mojica first visited Salazar Senior Center over 30 years ago he couldn’t help but compare the loteria games and coffee served at the eastside facility to the nicer aerobics classes and field trips offered at centers in the Westside.
“I thought ‘why don’t we have more, we pay taxes too,’” he said Saturday as he and the club’s band of elderly volunteers busily kept the Thanksgiving feast on track.
Today Salazar Park offers more activities than any other county park, he said proudly. They offer computer and English classes, tennis, Zumba, weekly dances and trips to the movies and other entertainment venues.
The variety of activities is the main reason more than 500 people visit the park located at the 3800 block of Whittier Boulevard almost daily.
When some of the club members first visited the park, it was to attend a fitness class or to eat one of the prepackaged meals offered at the senior center, or as in the case of 69-year-old Jesus Gonzalez, because he’d never been married and “was bored at home.”
“I came to eat one day and just never left,” he said in Spanish.
Gonzalez now volunteers about five hours a day, doing various tasks like collecting Zumba fees from participants.
Richard Mata, 62, says he feels like he spends more time at the park than with his family.
That’s why the deaths of so many club members in the last couple of years has been so hard on those still remaining, he said.
“You feel their absence,” echoed Maria Garcia, 74, tearfully. “Today, at our first Thanksgiving event since her death, [Gabby] was noticeably missing,” she said in Spanish.
Many members of the Salazar Park Friend’s group told EGP that volunteering at their age helps keep them busy and social, when they would otherwise not have much interaction with the outside world.
“I come to talk, participate in activities just so I’m not at home thinking negative thoughts,” said Angelica Rodriguez, 81, who has volunteered at the center for over 15 years.
“At our age, we have nothing to do at home so we spend time here in between doctors’ appointments,” said Garcia frankly.
In Ray Guerrero’s view, the park still has a lot of potential.
“We just need more help from the community,” the 70-year-old explained.
According to Mirna Valdez, 51, Mojica “handpicked” her and other instructors at the LA Fitness in Montebello to lead exercise classes at Salazar Park.
“That was 20 years ago,” she said, almost surprised by how much has gone by. “I understood it was important to give back to my community, especially one that suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes.”
Gloria Vazquez, 60, says she gravitated toward helping the park’s seniors because they remind her of her 89-year old dad back home.
“I just like being around them,” she said. “Some seniors don’t have kids so even a hug goes a long way,” she noted.
Vazquez told EGP it’s now up to the next generation to start giving back, explaining that many of the center’s seniors are just too tired and don’t have the energy they use to.
“If it wasn’t for the volunteers this park would not have what it does today,” she pointed out. “We need to remember this is our community, we are East Los Angeles!”
Mojica told EGP that the park in and of itself is a significant part of the East Los Angeles community’s history, He recalled that in years past it was the epicenter of community activism and volunteerism. The park – previously named Laguna Park – was renamed in honor of noted journalist Ruben Salazar who was killed by a Sheriff’s tear gas canister during the historic 1970 National Chicano Moratorium, when nearly 30,000 people marched against the disproportionate number of Chicanos dying in the Vietnam War.
It is also home to the 2001 mural “The Wall That Speaks, Sings, and Shouts” by well-known Chicano muralist Paul Botello. The mural includes images of key historical figures in Chicano history and illustrations that symbolize immigration, family life and resistance.
Hoping to keep the memory of important Latinos and events alive for new generations to see, the seniors have even put together a mini-museum that includes portraits of eastside “celebrities,” newspaper clippings, photographs depicting Los Angeles and shelves of vintage items and relics of the past.
Guerrero says he hopes that one day the room will also showcase the portraits of all the seniors who helped make the park what it is today, and those who will continue their legacy.
“We are all paying back something that was given to us by this community,” Guerrero said. “A lot of us are still here after many years, but we can always use more volunteers.”