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Family Opens Their Home, Hearts to Victims of Blaze

December 18, 1988|ELIZABETH LU | Times Staff Writer

BALDWIN PARK — Armed with a clipboard and a portable telephone in her front yard, Janet Roca was a one-woman command post last week on California Avenue, one of two streets where 14 homes were destroyed by fire.

In the days immediately after the Dec. 8 fires, Roca and her husband, Eli, postponed a 2-week vacation and opened their home to less fortunate neighbors, offering them coffee, hot meals, housing information, child care, donated groceries and clothing and a warm place to rest.

Located in the heart of the fire-damaged area, the Rocas' home at 14637 California Ave. was a more convenient gathering point for fire victims than Red Cross shelters at elementary and junior high schools half a mile away.

As residents who lost their homes trickled back into the neighborhood to salvage what they could, word circulated that the Rocas were collecting and distributing food, clothing and information.

The Rocas survived the fire with a few scorched trees and minor heat damage to the garage, but 10 of their neighbors on California Avenue saw their homes go up in flames.

An early morning fire, whipped at its height by 100-m.p.h. winds, destroyed 14 homes, 17 garages, 16 cars and two commercial buildings. Five homes and four businesses were severely damaged.

Almost Victims Themselves

The Rocas barely escaped disaster themselves. Almost within arm's reach of their driveway are the remains of their neighbor's home, now a charred shell.

"We were fortunate enough that we didn't receive that much damage," Janet Roca said.

The Rocas had planned to relax at home during their vacation and paint their house. Instead, they have been working practically nonstop lining up help for fire victims.

The couple, who own a printing business, said they are worried about the long-term needs of their neighbors.

"The Red Cross (aid) will eventually end," Roca said. "Hopefully we can continue from there." Fluent in Spanish and English, the Rocas have been translating for fire victims who speak only Spanish.

Carmen Almendras, whose home was destroyed, headed for the Rocas' house late Monday afternoon after a day of apartment-hunting.

Like other fire victims who spend their days working, dealing with insurance companies or looking for housing, Almendras could not make it to Red Cross disaster centers before they closed. At the Rocas' home, the door was always open.

"I come here to get more information," Almendras said. "She (Roca) keeps me pretty well informed."

One of the things Roca did was invite Alma Vielma, director of Catholic Charities, to meet with fire victims at her home.

Knowledgeable about immigration issues and insurance matters, Vielma told fire victims how to apply for emergency aid and how to replace important documents, such as deeds to their homes, Social Security cards and immigration papers.

Last weekend, Roca walked up and down Baldwin and California avenues to inventory fire damage and to compile a list of victims. Her handwritten list, which includes names and ages of more than 140 people, has been "a godsend" to Red Cross and city officials, said Baldwin Park Councilwoman Betty Lowes.

The Rocas always extend a helping hand whenever someone needs it, said Lowes, who has been working closely with the Rocas since the fire. The Rocas have always been active in community affairs. Last year, Eli Roca ran unsuccessfully for a council seat, placing third in a seven-person race.

Janet Roca spent Monday relaying housing information to her homeless neighbors. "They need to know where to go, what to do."

Throughout the rest of the week, fire victims continued to stream through the Rocas' residence, where no one seemed to sit down for an instant.

While one woman went to Pomona to check out an apartment, Roca looked after the woman's young daughter. Roca's 4-year-old son, Joshua, helped out by playing with the little girl.

Juggling Many Efforts

One minute Roca was checking on children left in her care, then she was out in the front yard meeting with a Red Cross official and Councilwoman Lowes.

After the conference, Roca was off again with her portable telephone, asking friends to stop at a food bank to pick up groceries for fire victims, many of whom lost their cars in the fire.

Meanwhile, the whole family pitched in. Janet Roca's mother, Ena Zarate, was washing donated clothing. By mid-afternoon on Monday, she had already done 12 loads of laundry. Eli Roca was sorting clothing and moving it to the front yard.

Janet Roca's sister was in the family room taking care of some elderly residents, and a 15-year-old nephew, Chaplin Espadas, greeted visitors as he helped separate clothing into piles for men, women and children.

The Rocas took Espadas into their home when he was about 7. Zarate, 62, has been living with them ever since her apartment building was converted into a condominium complex.

Urge to Help Others

"I think in life we can't live without helping other people," Zarate said. "I'm a retired nurse. I'm always there to help people."

She must have passed that sense of duty to her daughter.

Within hours after the fires, Janet Roca was soliciting donations for the victims.

By Monday, the Rocas' front porch was lined with large plastic garbage bags filled with clothing. A picnic table in the yard was piled high with sweaters, shirts and pants.

In the living room, visitors had to navigate around rows of white plastic grocery bags containing canned soups and vegetables, boxes of cookies and bags of beans and noodles.

As the sky darkened and temperatures dipped into the low 50s Monday evening, more than a dozen people crowded in the Rocas' front yard, sifting through bags of clothing looking for something warm.

One toddler was wearing only diapers and shivered in the chilly evening air. Roca rushed up to the child. In minutes the baby was warm in pink sweat pants and a sweater.

"We've never been ones to turn anyone away," said Eli Roca.

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