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A Desire to Help the Eastside Drives Institute Worker

By taking the mundane job of driving a van for a seniors’ transportation program based in Boyle Heights, Erick Duran Diaz is one of the latest recruits in a unique effort to help the poor, the underprivileged and--dare I say it?--the city’s immigrant population, legal and illegal, for they make no distinction.

That has been the mission of the International Institute of Los Angeles since it was founded by like-minded progressives in 1914.

It conducted English classes for Korean immigrants who came to L.A. in 1922. It protested the forced evacuation of Japanese Americans during World War II. It staged exhibitions and special celebrations to honor the region’s minority communities, from Mexicans to Armenians. It also signed up more than 20,000 illegal immigrants for U.S. residency under the landmark amnesty program in the late 1980s.

Although Diaz’s job isn’t politically charged or noteworthy, it’s just as important to the social service agency’s work. “By doing what I’m doing, I’m helping the community, the place where I grew up,” the 28-year-old says.

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Diaz knows plenty about driving around the Eastside. A longtime resident of the Estrada Courts public housing project who learned the little streets in his Boyle Heights neighborhood to avoid local gangs, he drives an Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus on weekends on a route that connects Downtown L.A. to East Los Angeles College.

When the International Institute recently unveiled plans for a new federally funded $100,000 door-to-door transit assistance program for seniors--the first of its kind on the Eastside--Diaz, fresh out of ELAC with a two-year degree, applied for a job. He and James Barrios were hired as drivers.

As I said, Diaz knows the streets like the back of his hand . . . or almost.

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The other morning, when I rode along, he was assigned to pick up 82-year-old Guadalupe Gonzalez on South Mott Street, in his old neighborhood. He arrived at the address, but Gonzalez was nowhere to be found. He rechecked the address and radioed his office, to no avail.

Having also grown up on the Eastside, I checked the address and noticed we were on North Mott instead of where we should have been, on South Mott. Sheepishly, Diaz wheeled around and drove south, where Gonzalez waited patiently for a ride to White Memorial Medical Center.

“You should be my navigator,” Diaz deadpanned to me.

It was the only glitch in his day.

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Like the International Institute’s other efforts through the years, this new transportation program has been greeted with enthusiasm by those who need the help.

“I’m glad they have this program,” exclaimed Olga Martinez, whom Diaz picked up at a Highland Park convalescent hospital for a trip to the bank. “I couldn’t get around without it. I don’t always have the money for the bus.”

When we got to the bank on Figueroa Street, Martinez got out of the institute’s blue 1995 Dodge Caravan slowly and walked in, with the aid of a cane. “Those are the people we’re trying to help,” Diaz noted.

In the program’s first two weeks, a steady number of calls have come in, sending Diaz and Barrios on trips all over the Eastside, the primary service area.

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As the demand for rides increases, it’s likely that more drivers will be sought for the program. But like Diaz, they’ll be more than just drivers. They’ll be part of the institute’s struggle to help the needy.

“It’s great to help others,” Diaz said. “I drive a van, going here and there, but it helps people.”

Diaz is a great recruit and a great recruiter. His starched white shirt always seemed fresh, in spite of the broiling weather. His friendly manner never wavered. Neither did his commitment to help. “I hope I’m with this program for a long time,” he said.

But there’s no guarantee of that.

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With cost-cutting Republicans running Congress, there’s a growing fear at the institute that crucial federal funds earmarked for its programs--ranging from day care for working mothers to the new seniors’ transit program--may be cut. But Diaz, for one, remains optimistic.

“I picked up a lady the other day who had $207 worth of groceries, something like 15 bags,” he said. “How many programs can help a little old lady like that?”

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Diaz was beaming at the ribbon-cutting ceremony two weeks ago that formally opened the seniors’ transportation program. Although the event got scant attention from the O.J.-crazed news media, Diaz didn’t need reporters to tell him he was becoming part of the International Institute’s struggle.

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“I’m ready to drive,” he told me.

He sounded like the founders of the institute 81 years ago, who believed the city’s newest arrivals need help. They still do.


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