Arnold Leon prides himself on being the man everyone turns to when they need help at the Santa Fe Springs Neighborhood Center.
When Christmas baskets needed to be filled, Leon was there.
When the decorations for the senior citizens' New Year's Eve dance needed to be put up, Leon was there too. Even when Neighborhood Center officials needed someone to cook a turkey for a needy family, they called Leon.
Though he is 81 years old, Leon is more than willing to toil for senior citizens and others who need a helping hand.
"That's the guy I like to help," said Leon, pointing to seniors busily making preparations at the center for a dance. "They're the most deserving."
It is no wonder that Leon--a spry man with silver hair and bright brown eyes--overwhelmingly won the Hispanic of the Year award recently in the 63rd Assembly District to add to his growing number of accolades.
There was the designation by Los Angeles County as Senior Citizen of the Year in 1980; a commendation from the Board of Supervisors the same year for his community service; and most recently, a plaque from the Santa Fe Springs City Council recognizing his volunteer efforts in the city. By Leon's estimate, he has volunteered more than 10,000 hours since he moved to the city 16 years ago.
Leon--who lives a stone's throw from the center on Pioneer Boulevard with his wife, Natalie--said it is the latest award, though, that has brought him local fame.
"Everywhere I go, people recognize me," said the lanky man with a picture-perfect smile.
Leon had to compete for the award with Latino community activists from seven other communities--including Artesia, Cerritos, Downey and Norwalk--that make up the 63rd Assembly District, said Arnold Rios, a field representative for Assemblyman Wayne Grisham (R-Norwalk). The other nominees were Raul Munoz, a volunteer for church groups in Artesia; Gilbert Torres, a community volunteer in Cerritos; Alex Baca, a Downey volunteer at Rancho Los Amigos; Petra Medelez, founder of Su Casa family crisis center in Hawaiian Gardens; Octavio Chavez, a South Whittier volunteer in area schools; Jose Sanchez, a Los Nietos priest, and Grace Napolitano, a councilwoman in Norwalk.
"I was very surprised. Everybody is worthy," Leon said.
Leon described the November ceremony as being like the "Academy Awards," and said he feels more at home at the center.
Every day, the former Arizona resident gets up around 4 a.m. to get started on gathering the goods for the seniors' morning coffee. He goes to a coffee shop on Washington Boulevard and waits on customers from 5 to 7 a.m. His pay is the shop's day-old doughnuts, which he distributes to the approximately 120 seniors who come to the center Monday through Friday, and at facilities for disabled people on the weekends.
Once he gets back to the center, he helps prepare food, clean up the center and do anything else that needs to be done.
But there's no complaint from Leon, whose father and grandfather lived to 97 and 93, respectively.
"I work with volunteers all the time, but not many get as involved in volunteering as he does," said Santa Fe Springs Mayor Betty Wilson, who remembers Leon helping out at the center ever since it opened in 1969. In addition to his work at the center, Leon is chairman of Santa Fe Springs Senior Citizens Social Club, and a member of the city's Senior Citizens Advisory Committee. Wilson said that at Christmastime, Leon was running to and fro, "working, directing and doing anything there was to do" to fill more than 400 Christmas baskets.
Like any perennial volunteer, Leon agreed to help decorate the center last week for a New Year's gala. The center bustled with noise and laughter as a group of 15 senior citizens blew up balloons and jockeyed ladders to nearby walls to tack up decorations.
Leon kept getting up and down from his chair, going from one work station to another, eager to help his friends.
"They're all great people. See how everyone cooperates. There isn't anything I ask them to do that they won't do," he said.
One of the women discovered that the light switch in the restroom was not working properly and she tried to summon help from anyone who was available.
Leon got up, and began to walk towards the bathroom. "I'll do it," he said firmly.