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Pasadena car saleswoman's co-workers sacrifice to fly her to Australia

Her elderly mother faced cancer surgery, but she couldn't afford to visit. Then 50 colleagues at Rusnak Volvo scraped together $969.

March 07, 2009|Bob Pool

She was sinking in a soured economy until co-workers gave her a hand up by sending her Down Under.

Employees at a Pasadena auto dealership chipped in to pay the way to Australia for car saleswoman Sue Ellis after she learned that her elderly mother was facing a cancer operation there and had a roughly 20% chance of surviving.

From the janitor swabbing the showroom floor to the mechanics hunched over engine blocks in the back of the car lot, 50 colleagues at Rusnak Volvo scraped together $969 to buy a round-trip ticket and pay Ellis' expenses for her hastily planned trip.

"I was overwhelmed when they told me what they'd done," said Ellis, a native Australian.

"I'm a victim of the recession and I didn't have the money to get home. I was so tormented thinking I would never see my mum alive again."

Ellis, 59, has worked 14 years at the Colorado Boulevard car lot. Because her pay is tied to commissions on new car sales and leases, her income has shrunk dramatically in the souring economy. New-car sales figures for Volvo's western region show a 60% drop during the period between February of last year and last month.

From their Pasadena lot, workers have watched anxiously as nearby Ford, Nissan, Acura and Mitsubishi dealerships closed.

Dealership receptionist Jill Williams began the campaign to help Ellis. Williams sits a few steps from a gleaming silver Volvo C70 convertible, directing visitors and callers to salespeople and service writers.

Williams has had her job for 11 years and knows her fellow employees well. She was upset when Ellis confided that her mother had been diagnosed with stomach cancer and was facing emergency surgery. Ellis mentioned that she last visited her mother 3 1/2 years ago and lacked the money for another trip.

"I sat here trying to figure out how to get Sue to Australia. I finally sent out e-mails on some computer social networking websites asking people if they were willing to give up their frequent-flier miles to help," Williams said.

When she got no response, Williams received the go-ahead from dealership managers to appeal to colleagues.

She told new-car salesman Hector Altamirano about Ellis' dilemma, and he started looking for discount airfares and doing financial calculations.

"He did the math and figured if we could find 18 to 20 people willing to give $55 each, we could do it," Williams said.

They concluded that was an unrealistic goal in today's difficult automotive-sales climate. "So we decided to ask people just to give what they could," she said.

Everyone was eager to help Ellis. "You're willing to sacrifice the smaller things for something like this," said mechanic Albert Montoya, who gave up a week's worth of lunch money for his fellow worker.

Al Ramosser, the dealership's maintenance man, summed the situation up this way: "We all have a heart. We all felt what she was going through."

Several of the dealership's former employees learned of the effort and donated. "One pulled up 15 minutes before we closed one night and handed me $40," said Mohamed Sidahmed, the lot's general sales manager.

The workers were still short as the flight deadline approached, so the dealership's general manager, Yohan Haddad, contributed the final $200.

"This business can be a cutthroat business," said Haddad. "But here, people watch each other's back."

Ellis managed to get to the Australian state of Victoria in time to visit with 84-year-old Coral Ellis for several days before her surgery. "I knew she would perk up and go into that operating theater really fighting if she could see me. She's a gutsy, gritty lady," Ellis said.

Her mother survived the February operation and is recovering in the hospital.

After the surgery, Ellis called the dealership to share the good news. She was back at work this week, thanking everyone on the car lot in person.

"If it weren't for my friends here, I don't know that Mum would have survived," she said.

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bob.pool@latimes.com

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