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Fighting AIDS With Love : Volunteers: Woman takes to streets to educate prostitutes, counsel young people about dangers of lifestyle.

October 14, 1994|MIMI KO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ANAHEIM — Just before midnight, Mercedes Ballon is ready to go to work.

Wearing walking shoes and comfortable clothes, her red hair teased and her long nails painted crimson, she grabs her black purse and straw basket bulging with her most important accessories: packs of condoms and brochures about AIDS.

Soon, she is in a dark Anaheim park or a Santa Ana alley doing what has become a life mission: trying to get young prostitutes off the streets and warning them about AIDS.

For the past year, Ballon, 41, an immigrant from Peru, has gone on this search in predominantly Latino neighborhoods almost daily.

Those she seeks out--male and female--have come to know Ballon as a mother figure. They occasionally gather at her apartment in Anaheim for a charla (talk), where they often express fear of the future.

On a recent night, Ballon passed out sheets of typing paper and asked five young prostitutes to write or draw what they know about AIDS.

Sergio, 22, wrote in Spanish: "Having AIDS is like being dead in life."

Yerika, 17, drew a picture of a girl crying, and another picture of a family with a slash through it.

One of the participants, 17-year-old Miguel, shared his story.

"My stepfather used to beat me and abuse me in Mexico until I couldn't take it anymore," he said. "So I came here when I was 15 and have been on the streets trying to survive."

Miguel later said Ballon persuaded him to quit the streets, get a job as a dishwasher and enroll in school.

"When somebody cares what happens to you, you start to care about yourself," he said, describing Ballon as a "very good woman."

Last year, Ballon formed Que Tan Grande Es Tu Amor Por Un Nino? (How Big is Your Love for a Child?) a group of about 60 volunteers, including doctors, nurses, teachers, students, business people and artists. The group's members counsel the young prostitutes about disease, listen to their troubles, and try to console and cheer those with AIDS. Some provide free services such as hair cuts, manicures, art lessons and physical examinations.

They also offer their services to the sick or needy children Ballon finds on the streets or hears about.

"I'm just trying to offer emotional refuge and let these kids know that they are not alone, that people love them and care for them," said Ballon, a divorcee with four grown children. "Some of them feel like there is no hope, and I cry with rage every day because they have dreams. . . . They have feelings and I want those sentiments to be happy while they're alive."

When she lived in Peru, Ballon volunteered for the Red Cross and helped an aunt, who is a nun, open a home for orphans. The aunt, she said, inspired her to help young people in her new homeland.

Ballon, a former nurse, teacher and social worker, was prompted to start How Big is Your Love for a Child? after failing to find an organization or hospital in Orange County where she could volunteer her services, she said. Some groups told her she needed to speak English to become a volunteer.

"People told me I was crazy and that my program would be impossible to launch, especially because I don't speak English," Ballon said. "OK, I don't speak English but I do speak the language that all mothers speak: love. . . . As I see it, there is a gigantic need for that."

Her group, she said, "is growing faster than I ever imagined."

To lend credibility to her work, Ballon recently completed a program sponsored by a private, nonprofit agency in Santa Ana that teaches Latinas about AIDS and safe sex and encourages them to teach others. She also completed a special Red Cross training course and an American Cancer Society course in supporting the terminally ill.

And she is taking English classes in Anaheim.

Ballon's mission takes on "a tremendous load," said Irene Martinez, director of the program for Latinas. "There's a lot of suffering out there and not enough people like (Ballon) who want to help and heal these people who are hurting."

Elizabeth Hoskins, a director of the Volunteer Center of Greater Orange County, called Ballon "a dynamo."

"She is very dedicated to her cause," Hoskins said. "She strikes me as really very serious about her mission."

In that vein, Ballon, who makes wedding decorations for a living, said she is trying to raise money to be able to rent a building where she can provide free shelter and activities including dance classes, music lessons and sports clinics for children.

On Monday, she will begin giving free classes on AIDS awareness at the George Washington Community Center in Anaheim.

The volunteers of Ballon's organization praise her commitment and dedication.

"Anyone with common sense can appreciate what she is doing," said Emma Maligon, a volunteer and real estate agent from San Juan Capistrano. "Everything she does, she does with her heart. She could use a lot more support financially, but even if she doesn't get it, she's not one to stop helping the kids."

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