Fifteen-year-old Julio Quinonez has always wanted to be a doctor. Three years ago, in hopes of getting an early taste of life in the medical field, Julio went to Santa Marta Hospital on the Eastside and offered his services.
He was turned away. Volunteers must be at least 14, hospital workers told him. "I was really disappointed," Quinonez said.
But he was undeterred. He was so eager to volunteer, in fact, that he returned to the hospital a month before his 14th birthday. Sylvia Almanzan, director of the hospital's volunteers, was so impressed that she made sure Quinonez could start the day he was eligible. He has been at the hospital ever since, answering phones, running errands, and translating for Spanish-speakers in the emergency room.
Quinonez is one of uncounted thousands of young volunteers who serve in the often beleaguered atmosphere of South-Central Los Angeles hospitals. The volunteer programs provide students with a feel for the "real world," giving them roles and responsibilities in a disciplined environment. Some of the programs allow developmentally disabled students to gain work experience, others give problem teen-agers a reason to stay off the streets, and still others provide an outlet for civic-minded teen-agers such as Quinonez.
"I've learned a lot from this," said Quinonez, a student at Our Lady of Soledad Catholic School on the Eastside and one of 57 teen-age volunteers at the hospital, which utilizes about 600 young volunteers a year. "It's been a great experience."
Since 1986, Santa Marta Hospital has run a special volunteer program for young people, using teen-agers referred by the Los Angeles Probation Department; the Maravilla Foundation; the East Los Angeles Volunteer Center; the Archdiocese Youth Employment Program; the Perez Center, a community organization, and several local churches and schools.
Volunteers work with assistants in hospital labs, change beds and help distribute food to patients, among other duties. For the teen-agers, most of whom come from low-income families, the program is an opportunity to learn life lessons from the hospital staff, many of whom grew up poor, studied hard, and were able to better themselves.
"It gives them a feeling of self-worth," Almanzan said. "A lot of these kids come from single families, even guardians. All they want is a little positive reinforcement. We try to let them know that they have a chance like everybody else."
Eduardo A. Lopez, a doctor in the emergency room at Santa Marta, grew up on the Eastside and attended Garfield High School. Lopez said he believes the junior volunteers benefit from working with a doctor from a similar background.
"(Being a volunteer) widens their vistas," said Lopez, a USC graduate. "They see a guy like me who became a doctor, and they don't see that as some unattainable goal. They see it as a real possibility."
Benny Yanez, 16, a Santa Marta volunteer, agreed that the experience has made him realize his own potential. A student at Garfield High, Benny began volunteering last year when his grandmother, his legal guardian, forced him to enlist in the volunteer program because he had been getting into trouble at school. Now he is thinking of becoming a lab assistant.
"When I first came here I didn't really want to be here," he said. "But I grew to like it. It's a good reference for a job later in life, and I get to deal with a lot of medical stuff."
At the California Medical Center in Downtown, a youth volunteer program accepts students from Valley Alternative, Jefferson, Manual Arts and Central Adult high schools, with the latter two schools sending students from a job skills programs for the developmentally disabled. The hospital has 11 mentally or physically disabled volunteers, who work for at least a year. Overall, it employs about 20 volunteers a year, said Volunteer Director Maureen Cox.
Volunteers at the Medical Center work in food service or helping patients get around the hospital, but the experience still gives them a feeling of responsibility.
"I like the order," said Chi Lam, 20, a developmentally disabled student from Manual Arts who runs errands five days a week at the hospital.
Patty Chavez, 21, also a developmentally disabled student from Manual Arts, wheels patients around the hospital and serves them meals. Although she had hoped to become a nurse someday, she said she had no idea what nurses did until she started volunteering.
"I thought nurses just fed people," she said. "Now I know there is more to it."
At Good Samaritan Hospital in Westlake, about 120 volunteers from 75 Los Angeles high schools work with the staff every year.
"We like to help them discover what they want to be," Volunteer Director Sue Davis said. "And hopefully they gain some compassion for those who are less fortunate, and the knowledge that they can make a difference in someone's life."
Taleen Hindoyan, 17, a senior at Mayfield High School in Pasadena, translates for Good Samaritan's many Armenian patients. Since she started volunteering in July, Hindoyan has helped many frustrated Armenian patients describe their symptoms to doctors. One Armenian patient recently began throwing things at nurses and doctors because they could not understand what he was saying. When Hindoyan reached his room, she quickly learned why--he wanted someone to notify his wife that he was in the hospital.
"I'm an important part of their life at that point," said Taleen, who wants to become a doctor. "At least I can tell them what the nurses and doctors are saying, that there is somebody doing something to help them, that they are not alone."
Brandon Craig Jr., 16, a junior at Pilgrim School in Downtown, works in the hospital's radiology department, transporting patients to X-ray rooms. He says volunteer work has made him more responsible.
"When you mess up, it throws everything off," he said. "You can cause serious problems to patients."
Being a hospital volunteer gives young people a better perspective on life, Craig said.
"You see a lot of sad things in a hospital," he said. "There are people who have no relatives to visit them, and people whose relatives don't care about them. It makes you realize how lucky you are."