Latino Volunteers Raise Awareness of Organ Donation

This feature story describes how the effort to better inform Latinos about organ donation is being carried out. It involved many interviews with volunteers, known as "Los Embajadores," and staff members of the donation agency OneLegacy. I observed the volunteers in action at the Mexican consulate and at other events. As in my other stories for this two-day series, I wrote the story in English but provided La Opinión any direct quotes that were given to me in Spanish in that language to simplify the translation process.

This story was originally published in Spanish. Below is the English translation.

United by a common mission, they work to raise awareness about saving people's lives through a selfless act: the donation of human organs. And, true to their name in Spanish, they have become the ambassadors for organ and tissue donation to the Latino community of Los Angeles.

Los Embajadores de Done Vida, about four dozen women, men and teenagers, carry their message to consulates, churches, health fairs, cultural events and Chivas USA games.

"They are volunteers who have a connection with donation, who have been donor families, have received a transplant or are on the waiting list for an organ," said Embajadores leader Sonia Navarro, Latino community development coordinator for OneLegacy, the donation agency for Los Angeles and six surrounding counties.

By recounting their own heart-tugging experiences, Navarro said, they are educating the community of Spanish speakers about the urgency for more organs to give individuals a new chance at regaining health. Each day, she said, six names are added to waiting lists nationally, and an average of 18 people die while on the waiting lists before an organ becomes available.

In the Los Angeles region, more than 3,700 Latinos wait anxiously, but the number of available organs — both from deceased and living donors — falls significantly short of the need.

Dr. Robert Mendez, a pioneer transplant surgeon and president and chair of OneLegacy, said educating the public is indispensable for obtaining greater support for donation. To expand its community education program, OneLegacy organized its Ambassadors volunteer group in 2004. Los Embajadores were formed the next year to work with the Spanish-language community.

Latinos, representing almost half of the region's population, are a key demographic sector in the effort to enroll people in the California donor registry, a list of people who have designated that they want to be donors when they pass away.

The information campaign among Latinos, however, faces difficult challenges: Only about 15% of Hispanics — or about 1 in 7 — are enrolling in the donor registry, compared to 1 in 4 overall. Fears and myths dissuade many Latinos from being donors, and the Embajadores work to address those issues.

To Catholics, the volunteers often tell them that Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala of Los Angeles has reiterated the church's position that "the donation of organs and tissues are an act of love." The bishop's message, aired earlier this year on KMEX, concludes with Zavala saying: "Sign up at the DMV, save lives."

On a recent Wednesday at the Mexican Consulate, Embajadores Norma Araos, Ana María Villalobos and Evangelina and Arnoldo Perez handed out "Done Vida" pamphlets.

As people waited to conduct their business there, los Embajadores informed them that a single donor can save up to eight lives with donated organs and can help up to 50 people with donations of tissues, including corneas to correct blindness, skin for burn victims and other medical needs.

After talking to an Embajadores, Yolanda Sanchez quickly agreed to enroll in the state registry. She said she does not have a driver's license and was happy that she only needed her matricula consular, the ID card issued by the consulate, to register.

Bryan Stewart, immediate past president of Donate Life California, the nonprofit organization that maintains the donor registry, said the Embajadores are "transforming donation from something that was fearful to something that can be celebrated."

Navarro, the Embajadores' coordinator, said the volunteers "never miss an event" where they can help raise awareness. Daysi Castro is one of those volunteers. Years ago, when her Salvadoran-born father, 54, suffered a heart attack leading to severe brain trauma, she remembered his earlier words: "If anything happens to me, why not help someone who needs my organs."

Sebastian's donated liver, kidneys and corneas were transplanted to give life and sight to others. On Jan. 1, Sebastian Castro will be among persons honored on Donate Life's float in Pasadena's Rose parade.

Daysi said that through her family's Embajadores work, they honor their father's legacy. "We want to encourage people," she said, "to give life to others."

Frank Sotomayor wrote this story while participating in The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of USC's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.