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Elena Valencia, 73; Founded Several Community Service Programs in East Los Angeles

June 25, 2005|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Elena Valencia, who founded community service programs for homeless senior citizens, disabled athletes and single mothers, has died. She was 73.

Valencia was hospitalized with pulmonary fibrosis at Marlinda Convalescent Hospital in Pasadena. She died there June 18, according to Corrine Cardiel, a close friend.

In East Los Angeles, she was as well known for being Cha-Cha the Clown as she was for her volunteer work. She began dressing in costume 24 years ago to attend pancake breakfasts, parades and other events she helped organize.

She named her clown character Cha-Cha because she loved to dance, but her playfulness didn't get in the way of her plans to change the world.

"Cha-Cha was versatile in finding effective ways to help," county Supervisor Gloria Molina said Friday. "Children, seniors, parents whose children could be at risk: She was there for everybody."

Valencia was a joyous woman, Molina said, adding that "her death is a tremendous loss."

In 1980, Valencia founded her first program, Advocates of Single Parent Youths, which offered support groups for single parents and scholarships for their children.

Valencia's own life as a single mother raising her son, Gregory, gave her a keen awareness of the challenges facing a parent without a partner.

Her husband died when she was in her 30s, and she lost her other three children at infancy to Gaucher's disease, an inherited metabolic disorder.

"Sometimes I would think, 'Why me? What do you want from me, God?' " Valencia said of her personal tragedies in a 1997 interview with The Times.

"In spite of everything, I'm strong," she said. "I have learned to work with the resources in the community."

Two years after she started the scholarship program, Valencia launched the Special Fun Games, an annual competition for disabled athletes.

The first year about 50 wheelchair-using athletes took part on the grounds of the Los Angeles Police Academy. Now, about 150 disabled athletes compete at Belvedere Park in East Los Angeles.

The biggest program she launched is Volunteers of East Los Angeles, now 18 years old, which puts people to work cleaning up neighborhoods and handing out holiday gift baskets.

"Cha-Cha believed that service to others is the rent we pay on this Earth," said Gilbert Rivera, who is on the board of the Volunteers program and oversees the games. "Valencia had one son, but the truth is: The community was her family."

To raise the money for her programs, she organized community dances on Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day and other holidays. She also went door to door.

"She wasn't ashamed to ask the hamburger stand owner or Gloria Molina's office for contributions," Rivera said. "People said yes because they loved her. She was never pushy."

Born and raised in Boyle Heights, Valencia was the youngest of 18 children. Her father came to the U.S. during the Mexican Revolution and worked as a concrete layer.

As a child during the Depression, she waited in bread lines and rummaged through grocery store refuse bins for food.

At 5, she would dance on the bar of a downtown tavern where her father took her.

She didn't speak English well until she went to school and was held back twice in first grade because of language limitations, a hearing problem and a stutter.

"It was horrible," she recalled decades later. "But then I thought, 'Damn the torpedoes, I'm going to speak.' "

She graduated from Roosevelt High School, worked in a factory and went to night school, where she learned to type. She went on to work in the promotion department of Sears for 20 years.

She was married for 16 years and spent many of those helping her frail husband in and out of the hospital, before he died of a heart condition.

She continued to perform and to attend board meetings, although in recent years she had been dependent on an oxygen tank to help her breathe.

Friends who visited her apartment said they usually found her clipping newspaper articles for a scrapbook filled with ideas for new projects.

In addition to her son, Valencia is survived by two sisters, two brothers and several nieces and nephews.

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