For Rigoberto Banuelos, registering for aid at the federal earthquake relief center in Alhambra became much easier once Maria Sanchez arrived.
Sanchez speaks fluent Spanish, and her skill as an interpreter enabled Banuelos, a native of Mexico who speaks little English, to find out how to get financial help to repair the damage done to his home by the Oct. 1 earthquake.
"She was great," the 48-year-old mechanic from Alhambra said in Spanish. "There were a lot of things that I would not have understood" if Sanchez had not been there to help, Banuelos said.
A housewife, Sanchez drove from her home in Long Beach on Monday to the disaster application center on Almansor Street after another interpreter failed to show up.
"They really needed someone," Sanchez said.
Although she was not sure she could be of service, Sanchez was encouraged by her family to volunteer. A friend called the center and was told that Sanchez could indeed help.
An hour later, the first-time volunteer was helping people get through the application process and understand what was expected of them.
"It made me realize we all need help," she said. "All I could think was, 'Thank God it's not me.' "
Sanchez has returned every day since, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., taking registration forms and calling applicants to make sure they understand the procedures.
Sanchez is one of about a dozen volunteers who have been working side by side with federal, state and local employees to keep the quake relief center in Alhambra running smoothly, said Patricia Beecham of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"If we didn't have them, we would be going crazy," Beecham said.
Sanchez said that although her own home received only minor damage in the earthquake, she can sympathize with the hundreds of people who lined up at the seven disaster application centers in Los Angeles County this week.
"You can get way down and out when you lose your home," she said. "I give these people a lot of credit."
One woman was very upset when she arrived at the center because she had moved out of her damaged apartment and rented another, mistakenly thinking that the Red Cross would immediately give her the first month's rent, Sanchez said.
"She was so upset and crying," she said. "It was a misunderstanding between what they had told her at the American Red Cross and what she had understood."
With Sanchez interpreting, the woman was able to get information on how to apply for a personal loan through the Small Business Administration or, if that was refused, an individual family grant.
Sanchez spent much of the day working near Doris Blackstock, 66, who has volunteered with the Red Cross for 20 years.
An Alhambra resident, Blackstock has been at the center since it opened Sunday.
Blackstock said she found working with the quake victims very satisfying. "You get to see the results of helping people," she said.
The week after the earthquake Blackstock spent working at the Red Cross shelter at the Joslyn Adult Center in Alhambra.
She said she was especially moved by the people who were afraid to go home, even though their homes had not suffered major damage.
"It's the unknown that's bothering people more than anything," she said.
At a table next to Blackstock, attorney John Trapani was helping people who feared they might have legal problems resulting from the quake.
He was one of several lawyers from the San Gabriel Valley Bar Assn. who have volunteered their time to the center.
Many renters wanted to know whether their landlords were responsible for repairing quake damage. Other wondered whether landlords or mortgage holders would allow them a grace period on rent or house payments, Trapani said.
The answer, he said, is no. "The earthquake does not suspend payments."