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Making the Big Difference

Volunteers: When Denise Marquez hooked up with a Big Sister, she had no idea how much it would change her life. Friday, she'll be crowned L.A. County's top youth volunteer.


She didn't know what it was or what caused it, but even at age 11 Denise Marquez sensed there was a hole in her life. So she did what she had seen others do when they needed something. She opened the Yellow Pages.

Denise came across a listing for Big Sisters of L.A., and she dialed the number. She had called a couple other agencies but they didn't seem interested in talking to a child, but this person was different.

"I was depressed," Denise says. "You wouldn't think that a little kid could be in that situation. I just thought, 'What's the use? What's the purpose of life?' Little kids shouldn't be thinking like that."

She asked her mother, Maria Marquez, if she would enroll her in the program--one of several in the Los Angeles area that partners adults and youth. Maria knew there were many things in life she wanted to give her two children but couldn't. An even greater concern was that there were many things in life she wanted to protect her children from and in that regard she worried that perhaps she couldn't.

"Every parent wants what's best for their children," says Maria, 44, a part-time teacher's assistant. "It was something Denise wanted very much."

For eight months, Denise's name moved its way up the waiting list, and finally the telephone rang. Cindy Wagner was new to the program. She, too, had discovered a hole in her life.

Wagner was recently divorced, and the thought of not having children of her own prompted her to become a Big Sister. In December 1993, the two met. It was, Wagner says, love at first sight.

She could see through Denise's behavior, which had her sitting in the principal's office much of the time. Volunteerism had been an important part of Wagner's life since high school, and she decided that what Denise needed more than help was the opportunity to help others. Wagner signed the two of them up as volunteers for the L.A. Marathon, Heal the Bay, Toys for Tots. They helped build Rose Bowl floats and worked at the L.A. Mission.

And for her work, Denise will be honored Friday--National Philanthropy Day--as L.A. County youth volunteer of the year in a ceremony at the Beverly Hilton.

"What stood out about Denise was the incredible wherewithal for someone that age to select the Big Sisters program out of the Yellow Pages and take action as well as the breadth of her volunteer work," says Patty Oertel, executive director of the Center for Nonprofit Management and chairwoman of this year's event.

Wagner showed Denise another side of life, beyond the tough streets of her Lennox neighborhood. She explained how full of possibilities life was and how Denise had control over her life, her future, no matter how difficult circumstances seemed.

"They called me the devil in elementary school," says Denise, now 15 and a sophomore at St. Mary's Catholic School in Inglewood. "It was like a joke because I was always in trouble and in detention. I really didn't care about anything. I felt like I was hurting inside, so everybody else should hurt too so they could understand me more."

Even now, there are moments when Denise isn't sure whether she is strong enough in her convictions to avoid the trappings that claim so many of our young.

"There have been times when I just wanted to run away. There have been times when I wanted to die, so it would all go away. Everybody would say, 'She's so innocent,' but I always felt sad inside. I didn't understand why I was always getting in trouble, why I was being mean to people. I could have done drugs and alcohol, and there's still a chance now, but I know it's not what I want. I know I can be a nice person, and I've learned what a nice person does."

She has seen more death than most people see in a lifetime, and she writes about them in her journals:

A friend that cares,

A friend that shares,

A friend that loves,

A friend that cries,

A friend that dies.

I miss you Jose.

Jose De La Paz, 16, was gunned down while riding his bicycle two blocks away from Denise's home last year. Police believe he was mistaken for a gang member. Denise still writes to him in her journals.

Writing is her passion. She hopes to be a journalist or writer. She writes in bed late at night, listening to the radio, sometimes calling in to dedicate songs to friends. Or she sits on her back stairs quietly writing down her thoughts. Sometimes she finds poetry in her life, or she follows her imagination and documents the journey into moments of joy and darkness.

Sometimes, she says, she talks to herself through writing. She looks out the window and sees a cinder-block wall where Jose De La Paz would sit and wait for her to return home from school. Whatever image comes to mind is what she writes about.

"Sometimes," she says, "I cry though my writing."


To be forgotten is painful to one who forgets no one. Denise writes letters to friends a couple blocks away as well as to friends she hasn't seen in years. Her letters are gilded in stickers or pictures cut out from magazines. Sometimes she puts candy in them.

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