A crime victim repays a nonprofit that came to his aid

Victim advocate Esteban Calel (left) helped Jesus Garcia, who was injured in an attack. Now Garcia is returning the kindness, helping to host a benefit for Victim/Witness Services of South Philadelphia. (HELEN UBIÑAS / DAILY NEWS STAFF)

ONE MINUTE Jesus Garcia was telling the angry men not to worry: If his friend had scratched their car while they parked on a South Philly street, they would take care of the damage, no problem.

The next, Garcia was on the ground, getting punched and kicked in the head until everything went black.

The police came, the ambulance was called. But by then, the guys were long gone, and with only a partial Delaware plate as a clue, they were never found.

Back at work the next day as chef at Lucha Cartel, a Mexican restaurant on Chestnut Street near 2nd, Garcia had a swollen face. He was grateful that he and his friend, also assaulted, had survived the violent attack, but he worried about medical bills piling up.

He had health benefits through his job, but they didn't cover all his medical expenses, including a $700 ambulance bill.

A friend suggested that Garcia go to Victim/Witness Services of South Philadelphia, one of seven community-based agencies that help crime victims with bills, legal help and the stress of victimization. Last year the agency helped more than 200 South Philadelphia residents get more than $550,000 from fines paid by criminal offenders.

Garcia was a little apprehensive: He couldn't afford to miss work. But he went. From the moment he walked into the agency on 12th Street near Wilder and met victim advocate Esteban Calel, Garcia said, he felt comfortable. Garcia, an immigrant from Mexico, is fluent in English. But he felt much more at ease speaking to Calel in his native language.

As an immigrant from Guatemala, Calel said he remembers vividly how the kindness of strangers made all the difference to him and his family when they were new to this country.

A desire to repay that kindness is why, despite never planning on staying on with the agency when he started part-time as a social-work student at Temple, he has been a victim advocate for 10 years.

"I guess it's come full circle," he said. "I couldn't repay the strangers that helped me, but I could help people through my job now."

Many times, he said, immigrants who are victims of crimes do not report them because they fear missing work, going to police or being asked about their immigration status.

"We make it very clear that regardless of immigration status and language, we are there to help them," Calel said. The agency has a staff of five, three of whom are bilingual in Cantonese, Spanish and Vietnamese.

Calel and others at the South Philadelphia nonprofit were able to help Garcia pay his ambulance bill and some outstanding co-pays. And, like many clients, Garcia was so grateful that he wanted to repay them.

When he heard that the space for an upcoming fundraising benefit for the group fell through, he jumped at the chance to help. Garcia and his employer offered to donate the food and space at the restaurant.

"It really is amazing," said Alison Sprague, the group's executive director. "It may sound cliche, but it really is an honor to be able to walk people through these awful moments in their lives."

Sprague said although the agency gets some federal and city funding, grants and donations, the organization functions on a lean budget of about $300,000 - not a lot when you consider that they provide outreach and services to about 3,000 victims a year.

The happy-hour benefit will be from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Monday at Lucha Cartel, 207 Chestnut St. Tickets are $25 each (five for $100) and can be purchased in advance by calling 215-551-3360 or by emailing vwssp@aol.com.

A year after the violent attack, Garcia is still dealing with some lingering health issues. "I don't feel totally like myself," he said. "But I know I am lucky that Esteban helped me, so I would do anything for them so that they can help others."



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