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HUNTINGTON PARK : Latino Health Center Could Face Closure

October 16, 1994|SIMON ROMERO

Health educator Maria Vargas, who pounds the pavement every day to fight illnesses from tuberculosis to lung cancer to AIDS, is battling to keep her health center open.

The center's home in a former Hindu temple at 2502 Clarendon Ave. is for sale. Unless she can find a new home to plug in a phone line and distribute preventive care pamphlets, the Mexican American Health and Educational Services Center could close at the end of this month.

"We're out of money and we really need this space in order to keep on providing the community with ways to prevent communicable diseases," said Vargas, who contributes part of her salary as an outreach health educator for the American Diabetes Assn. and American Lung Assn. to the center. Run with the help of 25 volunteers, the center depends on private donations.

"Without ways to approach the Latino community at their level, the chances are that more people will get sick and won't know why or how they can get better," said Vargas, who has held a variety of jobs as a health educator in Los Angeles County in the past 20 years.

Since she founded the center in 1991, Vargas, 43, says she has promoted healthier lifestyles to thousands of Latinos while raising awareness about health problems such as diabetes, tuberculosis and AIDS.

Vargas tries to reach out to Latinos who mistrust the medical establishment and turn instead to folk healers for cures.

"There's a lot of distrust among some, especially older people, in dealing with modern medicine. A lot of people will still just go to a curandero to look for a cure," she said.

At a recent prenatal information session at the center, Vargas said she was amazed that many women did not know about the dangers posed by secondhand smoke and proper eating habits during pregnancy.

Vargas takes her message about preventive care, along with plenty of pamphlets in Spanish and English, to churches, schools and clinics in Huntington Park and surrounding communities. At these outreach sessions, she refers those in need of medical care to local clinics and hospitals.

Until the sale of the building is completed, the center has been allowed to stay and pay $500 per month in rent. Most of that money, Vargas said, comes out of her own pocket.

"All we need to operate is about $1,500 per month," said Vargas.

But even that amount is difficult to come by. In the center's first year, the owners charged no rent in exchange for needed repairs to the building's interior.

Vargas and a corps of local volunteers from 8 to 80 painted walls, scrubbed floors and cleaned up the front porch, a hangout for prostitutes and drug-pushers.

Now the building is in pristine condition, its walls lined with posters proclaiming the dangers of secondhand smoke to young children and ways to prevent AIDS. Children wander in after school to take advantage of tutoring programs or volunteer in handing out anti-smoking literature.

"It's really gratifying to see these kids interested in health issues when they're young because prevention is so important," Vargas said. "Identifying a health problem at an early age can prevent much larger problems later on in life."

Information: (213) 588-0244.

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