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Giving / Swat Fame : A weekly look at those who help.

Little Company, Big Heart

Minimum-wage workers in Industry are in a class of their own raising funds for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. They've set the bar even higher this year.

November 10, 1998|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Steaming tamales, $1 each. Rosario Gutierrez was up until 1 in the morning making them, 21 dozen in all, five dozen for her family, the rest to sell at work here at Swat Fame, a clothing manufacturer in Industry where she has worked for two years.

Soledad Escobar was up at 5 driving from her home in East L.A. to Commerce to pick up 300 churros to sell in the distribution department. She sold out by 8 a.m.--two for a buck--and was back on the road to Commerce for 300 more.

Now as workers gather in the break room for a bicycle raffle, Fran Coye enters the room rattling a bucket of pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. Empty your pockets, she says, weaving through the room from one raised hand to the next. More pennies, more nickels, more dimes and quarters. The bucket fills a fistful at a time.

About 360 people work at Swat Fame. Eighty-five percent earn minimum wage, but they still reach into their pockets for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. Last year they raised $86,264, more than corporate giants Paine Webber, Home Savings of America, Xerox, Wells Fargo. It was the highest corporate total in Los Angeles, 25th highest in the nation.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 12, 1998 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Swat Fame--Thirty-five percent of Swat Fame employees earn minimum wage. Because of incorrect information provided by a spokesperson for the clothing manufacturer, an incorrect percentage was included in Tuesday's Southern California Living story about the workers' fund-raising efforts.

They raised the money one tamale, one penny and one step at a time. At last year's Walk to Cure Diabetes, they took family members, friends, neighbors to help raise more. In all they had 500 people.

"I've never seen anything like it," says Rita Hopkins, executive director of the L.A. chapter of the diabetes foundation. "It was amazing what those people were able to do."

No one knows exactly how they did it, how they were able to generate such enthusiasm and commitment for the cause, but for Mitchell Quaranta, president of the company, it was a lesson in teamwork and in hope.

"When you think you can't do something," he says, "look at what the people here did. They taught me that anything can be accomplished if you set your mind to it."

It was Quaranta who got the ball rolling last year. His 5-year-old daughter, Ali, was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes almost three years ago. He told Coye, the company's director of human resources, that he wanted to help raise money for diabetes research. They set a goal of $25,000 and hoped to get 25 people to the walk.

"I was hesitant initially," Quaranta says. "I didn't want to force it down people's throats. I didn't want it to be me saying, 'My daughter has diabetes. You have to care about this.' "

But employees did care. They came up with ideas to raise money. A little here, a little there. There was no long-term plan. Activities were conducted spontaneously. "Let's raffle off something," they decided earlier in the week.

Coye sent an employee to the store at 9 a.m. to buy a computer play station. An hour later, employees were called to the break room. Tickets sold out quickly, and they made a couple hundred bucks before returning to work. A cleaning lady took home the play station.

This year, however, the bar has been raised. Swat Fame is trying to raise $100,000. The donations are coming in slowly. Coye is handed an envelope taped shut. It's from the winner of the Halloween costume contest who is donating her $50 prize money plus another $250 in change and dollar bills.

"I get envelopes like this from employees, and I have no idea how they raised the money . . . where this other $250 is from," Coye says.

The sound of coins rattling in her bucket gradually takes on a deeper more satisfying tone as she makes her way around the room. It fills slowly like a bucket in the rain. Coye knows they will need a downpour soon to reach their goal.

Two weeks ago, employees in distribution raised $4,000 with a parking lot sale. By the end of last week, about $18,000 had been raised. The walk at Griffith Park is at 9 a.m. Sunday, and they are a long way from reaching $100,000. Coye shakes the can a little harder.

*

When corporate representatives met in Los Angeles to kick off the fund-raising project last year, Coye and four other employees attended. They found their table in the very back, almost hidden in a corner.

"We were the little company nobody had ever heard of and here we were with all these people from big corporations with their blue suits on," Coye says.

Gerald Dowell, a maintenance and security worker, was not impressed. He surveyed the room, leaned over and said coolly to Coye, "We can beat these guys."

They returned to the factory and asked employees for their ideas on how to raise money, and right away there were volunteers willing to sell food, collect cans. Coye wanted the project to be fun, something that would draw them closer and get everyone involved.

"We had a meeting early on, and I asked how many of them knew somebody with diabetes," Coye says. "Almost everybody raised their hand."

The work force is largely Latino. According to the diabetes foundation, Latinos and African Americans are 55% more likely to have diabetes. The life expectancy for those with diabetes averages 15 years fewer than those without it.

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