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When Desperate Mother of Triplets Calls Radio Deejay, Listeners Respond and Help Family Regain Its Footing

September 28, 1997|ESTHER SCHRADER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — This is a tale of a young couple living on the edge of poverty who hit bottom this month--then, with the help of a radio deejay and the kindness of strangers, climbed out.

Until this year, Reyna and Jose Luis Villasana, both 21 and new to this country, were making it, if barely. Jose Luis Villasana had a steady job on a Placentia assembly line. Reyna Villasana, pregnant for the second time, stayed in the couple's small Anaheim apartment caring for their 2-year-old daughter.

Then came four developments that threatened the family's stability.

The first was joyous enough: Reyna Villasana learned she was expecting triplets. But that news soon turned scary, when the three boys were born two months premature. Then her husband lost his job. The final blow came when their doctor told them that one of the babies, Luis Angel, has a kidney disorder that requires expensive surgery.

That's when a desperate Reyna Villasana picked up the phone.

On the other end of the line was a radio deejay at Los Angeles Spanish-language station KLVE-FM (107.5). And listening were hundreds of people who wanted to help.

In the days since, the family has received gifts of diapers, baby clothes and food from strangers. Last week a woman drove from Los Angeles to bring the family a stroller for three. And a neighbor gave Jose Luis Villasana a line on a job. Another brought over three cribs.

"I get a lot of phone calls from people asking for help, but this call seemed like something out of the ordinary," said Pepe Barrero, the deejay who took the call. Barrero said the response to the 45-minute on-air conversation with Reyna Villasana, even for a radio station accustomed to having people tell their stories, has been overwhelming.

"I could tell by the woman's voice that she was desperate, that she was sincere, and I felt I could help her," Barrero said. "I only have two children, but I can imagine what it would be like if I all of a sudden had three. The response to her confirmed what I suspected, that lots of people can imagine themselves in the same straits, and that lots of people still have feelings."

The help has left the couple feeling grateful and a bit overwhelmed.

"We don't want to be dependent. We are not the sort of people who say, 'Help me, help me.' But finally I guess I just got desperate," Reyna Villasana said. "We had a lot of plans when we first found out about the triplets. Jose Luis used to come visit me in the hospital, and he had his work, and we talked about buying carriages, and how beautiful it would be. Then he lost his job, and everything went downhill."

The couple's situation is not unusual, say social workers and social services specialists. They are like millions of others, immigrants and non-immigrants, who make just enough to pay the rent and put food on the table. And when the unexpected happens, it can send them over the edge.

"A lot of people are struggling and they have a lot of needs, and work is hard to find," said Melissa Gleason, a social worker at Martin Luther Hospital in Anaheim who has sought to help the family since May, when Reyna Villasana was first hospitalized because doctors anticipated a complicated pregnancy.

"Of course, they suddenly had three children, and they have minimal family support. Something like this makes it very difficult for anyone to feel like they're getting ahead. If you have on top of that children who are born with special needs, it's very overwhelming. It's a time of crisis."

At the Villasanas' apartment on a recent day, the 3-month-old boys, Jose Luis, Juan Luis and Luis Angel, lay on a brightly colored cloth on the living room floor, in matching outfits sent by, their father said, "an angel." Boxes of clothes were in one corner. In the other was the young couple, speaking excitedly about their hopes that the worst might be over.

In the wake of the call to the radio station, the couple found out that the unemployment benefits they had been seeking from the Orange County Social Services Agency will come in time to pay the October rent; they'll get food stamps too.

With the aid of Gleason, they have applied for supplemental security income, or SSI, from the federal Social Security Administration. The program provides benefits to children with disabilities, and it could help cover the costs of medicine and treatments not paid for by Medi-Cal. And even before the day Reyna Villasana called the radio station, Gleason had referred the couple to a nonprofit group called Family Support Network.

The couple, who moved from a small town in Mexico three years ago, will need support. With Luis Angel due to have surgery soon to repair a blocked duct that prevents his kidneys from functioning properly, and with doctors saying he will probably need a kidney transplant eventually, the couple said they will be spending a lot of time in hospitals.

Jose Luis Villasana said he hopes by October to secure the job cleaning rooms at a Newport Beach hotel.

"I want to dedicate myself to work, just for the kids, that's what we came here to do," he said. "I just, we never thought that one of our kids could be sick. We never thought that we would need that kind of help."

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