EL MONTE — It started out as a free food bank, but today it looks more like an elaborate church bazaar.
On a typical day at the Our Saviour Center, a line of people stretches out the door of the former rectory on Santa Anita Avenue. They're waiting for the free food.
But there also are people waiting to see a doctor, who pokes and prods patients in a back room. In the yard, people pick through racks of secondhand clothing. A group of women learn housecleaning skills in the Sunday school hall. And, in an air-conditioned trailer in the parking lot, preschool children take their first, halting lessons at computers.
Call it an organic approach to the problems of the poor, said center director Dorris Dann. The center offers a variety of services to the poor in the El Monte area.
"You start out giving people food, then things happen," she said. "You find out right away that there are people who need jobs. . . ."
The center--sponsored by the Our Saviour Episcopal Church in San Gabriel but housed in the facilities of the Immanuel Epsicopal Church in El Monte--has been unobtrusively helping poor families for five years.
Last year it handed out 425 tons of food, gave free medical care to 951 families and helped hundreds of homeless people to find shelter on cold nights.
Headquarters for the program, which has a paid staff of seven and numerous volunteers, is a tan stucco building behind the main Immanuel Church on Santa Anita Avenue.
A chalkboard in the "living room" lists the food items available. On this day, there are butter, flour, cornmeal, honey, peanut butter and grapefruit juice.
But those are just the federal surplus items, said Dann, a retired buyer for The Broadway. The program, with an annual budget of about $300,000, chips in food from the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank and items that are bought with Our Saviour's own money. Each family usually gets two large bags of groceries twice a month.
In the food bank storage area in back of the house, there are boxes of potatoes and grapefruit, as well as cartons of cereal and rice, waiting to be distributed.
"We try to take care of people's immediate needs," said Dann, who took the job as "sort of a little something to do" but found herself working at "the most full-time job I've ever had."
The immediate needs can be monumental.
Among those waiting to see the doctor is Guillermina Garcia, 33, a stocky woman with frizzed blond hair. She and her five children arrived--illegally--from Mexico City only a week ago.
"Work was very scarce in Mexico--barely one day a week," she said in Spanish. "We took a bus to Tijuana, and one night, we went to the border with a large group of people. We all ran. I told the children, 'If anybody gets caught, we should all stop.' But we all made it."
Since then, the family has joined another family in a house in the area, and Garcia found a job in a factory. Then she slipped on a sidewalk and cracked a vertebra, and her youngest child got sick.
"He hasn't eaten in four days," Garcia said, pushing her 8-year-old son forward. "He says his stomach hurts."
The boy looked up listlessly, his eyelids drooping.
Dr. Thomas Farnham, a general practitioner from the Community Health Foundation of East Los Angeles, which staffs the weekly clinic, said he's seeing a lot of cases of scabies (a skin disease), some upper respiratory illnesses and some ear infections.
"For most of the people who come here, medical care is a low priority," he said. "The exigencies of daily life come first. If they have food and shelter and if they have the time, then maybe they'll think about medical care."
Thus, the illnesses treated at the little makeshift clinic tend to be relatively advanced.
Garcia's problems may be typical of those lining up at Our Saviour, but her immigration status is not, Dann said.
"There's a common misconception that only illegal immigrants cannot find jobs," Dann said. "But there are many, many legal immigrants, about 90% of the people who come here, who can't find jobs."
The job searchers are routed to job developer Marcella Lamar. As with most of the center's programs, Lamar's is based on the expressed needs of the clients.
"Most of the people have been spending all day beating the streets, going from door to door," said Lamar, who, in a year on the job, has picked up a workable knowledge of Spanish. "Sometimes there's a language barrier. With the 18-year-old, it's not knowing where to start. We try to give them an idea of what to expect out there."
For example, Lamar helps would-be job applicants to fill out applications, just the way they would in an employment or personnel office.
"In Mexico, you just go to the boss, and if he wants you, you work," said Maximino Leon, who is looking for construction work. "It's pura palabra , just spoken words."
Lamar explained the subtle mysteries of the application form--such as the question "Is there additional experience which qualifies you for the job?"--and checked her own list of available jobs.