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He's the Latino Diabetes Assn.'s keeper of the flame

Randy Muñoz takes the issue of diabetes in the Latino community personally. His passion has been a positive thing for the Montebello nonprofit.

June 18, 2012|By John Hoeffel, Los Angeles Times

Muñoz worried that Montebello would take back the office if not enough was happening. He asked a new acquaintance, Yolie Acosta, to show up occasionally and make some noise. She showed up a lot. Acosta, 39, who grew up in Cypress Park, had a grandmother and an uncle with diabetes.

Eventually, she left a job that paid about $60,000 a year. She is now the Latino Diabetes Assn.'s executive director, sometimes paid and oftentimes not.

After working together for a year or two, Muñoz and Acosta fell in love. "When we talk about LDA, it's pretty much 24-7. It's like our baby now," she said.

They are well-matched. While Muñoz is often impolitic, Acosta is diplomatic but persistent. Muñoz spins ideas; Acosta deals in the details.

As a compliance auditor, Muñoz monitors how nonprofit agencies spend the county's money. His inside view has made him cynical about misspent funds, and it galls him because the Latino Diabetes Assn. scrapes for every dollar.

In its best year, 2008, the association raised $142,000. Muñoz recalls having classes in six communities at once. "It was like a circus," he said. He dreams of raising a million dollars a year and hiring full-time staff.

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Last September, the Latino Diabetes Assn. discovered that it was out of money.

Kinde Durkee, a Burbank treasurer employed by many politicians, had kept the association's books. Before she was arrested and accused of embezzling, she had informed the association that it had $29,351.19. But the bank could find only $2,153.18 — and now that was frozen.

In those first dazed weeks, Muñoz was dismayed. "I've been, like, on the top of a mountain with a bullhorn, saying: 'Overhere!' " he said, slumped at a table in the association office. "Not one person has called us and said, 'Hey, man, I feel bad for you guys. Let me give you a dollar.' Nothing."

Muñoz, dressed in cargo shorts and a Hawaiian shirt that belied his sour mood, was surrounded by shelves crammed with brochures, a cabinet filled with files on diabetics who needed help and walls hung with framed commendations from politicians, most of whom have never donated a cent.

The unexpected insolvency came at a vulnerable time for Muñoz. A month earlier, his niece had died at the age of 27.

Heartsick from Arevalo's death, distressed by the association's money woes, upset by the mute reaction and weary of wheedling for donations and volunteers, Muñoz thought about giving up. "I could walk away," he said.

He didn't. He didn't think he had a choice.

"It is an absolute crisis and everybody's sitting on their thumbs," he said.

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By November, he had raised little money, but found an inexpensive way to promote his cause. Muñoz organized a candlelight vigil to remember diabetes victims at La Placita church in downtown Los Angeles. About 150 people showed up, forming a circle around Muñoz.

"All we're doing is trying to prevent this from happening to you guys because, I'm sorry, but some of you guys are going to die one day or have really bad complications, and it's so unnecessary," said Muñoz, striding about and clutching a framed photo of his niece to his chest.

Muñoz and Acosta then renewed their pursuit of donations, collecting enough to hold classes in yoga and healthy cooking in Maywood, South Gate, Commerce and Cudahy.

They brought in more than $50,000 altogether from the City Club fundraising dinner, the S. Mark Taper Foundation, Smart & Final, Wal-MartFoundation, the Union Pacific Foundation, Hispanics in Philanthropy and the Vons Foundation.

"Yolie stalked me," said Gilbert Gonzales, chairman of the Vons Foundation at that time. Guessing that she'd called 15 times, he said her passion was persuasive.

Finally confident that the Latino Diabetes Assn. would survive, Muñoz and Acosta decided to celebrate a bit. In the Los Angeles City Council chamber last month, Reyes offered an emotional tribute and handed Acosta a certificate "for never giving up." Gonzales presented Acosta an oversized check for $15,000.

Muñoz, who's not much for ceremony and certificates, stood to the side. Paying no attention to a police officer who pestered him to move, he shot photo after photo that he could use to raise more money.

john.hoeffel@latimes.com

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