During the Baldwin Hills fire, Elizabeth Williams' home survived when houses around her exploded and burned to their foundations. She also says she lived through a rare disease that doctors said would kill her in three months and an accident in which her automobile skidded over an embankment, flipped six times and landed upright.
With that kind of staying power, it is understandable that from a meeting in her living room four years ago, Williams--using state and private-sector grants--created a nonprofit social service organization with a $12-million annual budget, a staff of 121 and 30,000 clients each year.
Housed in three locations in Compton and one in Los Angeles, People's Choice provides residents of 31 cities with emergency food, shelter and payment of gas and electric bills. It also offers more permanent help through job training, psychological counseling and home repair and weatherization.
Most clients sign up for these services in People's Choice's Compton Boulevard offices. In a large room where several counselors sat at well-worn desks recently, Lillie Langston, 62, a retired nurse who underwent back surgery, applied for emergency food.
A hand-lettered sign in the window offered "Free Home Weatherization." Langston said that three days a week, long lines of people wait to pick up boxes of onions, potatoes, flour, meal, macaroni, wheat bread and peanut butter and other foods.
"It's nice and fresh," said Langston, whose $560 a month from Social Security and disability payments is her only income. "Some people say that if they're going to give food to you, it won't be good. But they've got to come down here and see. It has helped me a great deal.
"And the people are real cooperative and nice. That's what I like."
White-haired Elizabeth Rasmussen, 60, who has a disabling back condition and receives $328 a month from Social Security, came in for food and help getting her phone turned back on.
Down the street at People's Choice main office at 401 E. Compton Blvd., Willie Petty, 56, who is blind, sought to recover furniture held by a motel owner who evicted him. A social worker searched by phone to find an attorney.
For services such as these, People's Choice is widely praised. "I can't put them as the No. 1 organization in the state but I would put them up pretty close to that. And we have a lot of them," said a spokesman for the state Office of Economic Opportunity in Los Angeles, which provides grants to People's Choice.
"The minute they get the contract, immediately they go to work," said the analyst, who has monitored approximately 10 People's Choice programs. " . . . They are consistently going beyond the goals that we set. . . . "
'A Lot of Respect'
"My Hispanic contacts in the area indicate a lot of respect for these people and what they're doing," said Maria Schutz, a legislative assistant for Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) in Washington.
"Hispanics and blacks are often at odds seeking federal funding," said Schutz, a Mexican-American who grew up in Hawthorne near Compton. "I think the issue is poor people trying to help themselves rather than what ethnic group they belong to. I think Ms. Williams understands that."
Williams, 41, creates these policies from a Compton office where all the furniture and accessories, including the mauve carpet and curtains, are donated.
Seated behind a desk, she said that after 15 years in social service in the East and Midwest she moved to California to attend law school and bought a house in Compton.
"It was a real nice house," she said, "but surrounding us were a lot of poor people. As we began to get to know the neighbors they began to talk and to tell me their circumstances.
"They didn't know what was going on. If a mother was earning $400 from Social Security and was trying to pay for rent, food, clothing and electricity, they often let one go in order to survive.
'Why Don't They Have Help?'
"In Los Angeles and where I had come from, there were agencies to help with those utility payments. In Compton there didn't seem to be one.
"I couldn't figure out, 'Why don't they have help down there?'
"And then I was psyching myself. Oh, I'm going to listen to them and sympathize with them, but I'm going to law school," she said.
"And they kept telling me more and more and I kept looking at the neighbors and older people and it kept working on me mentally. But I was still telling myself I was going to law school."
"But the circumstances drew me back. Many people just wanted a chance. They simply just wanted somebody to care. I find particularly in this area that people are very selfish. They're not sensitive and they feel like everybody ought to kind of make it on their own, and it's very difficult. . . . "
She visited congressmen, City Council members and community leaders "and it seemed like everywhere I went there was cold water thrown on me," Williams said.
She decided to use money she had saved to attend law school to start an organization.