By Gary Kohatsu
When COVID-19 struck the U.S. many months back, almost all citizens had their lives severely altered. Some people, among them senior citizens, were especially inconvenienced.
Then there were others, including Antonio Atoche, who seized the opportunity to help those in distress. Atoche, a Gardena real estate agent for Re/Max Innovative, came up with a novel idea to help deal with a novel coronavirus that was ravaging the community, as well as the world.
He would deliver hot meals to those in need. Once President Trump declared a national emergency on March 13, Atoche chose to start his hot meals delivery on Monday, March 16.
“I picked seniors because they have to stay home due to being among the most at-risk,” Atoche said last week. “I started delivering meals five days, because I didn’t have many homes. After that, I settled into 3 times a week.”
Senior Mary Simmons is one of the regular Gardena residents receiving the El Pollo Inka meals.
“I love the chicken. It’s very moist and the outside is seasoned well,” Simmons says with a chuckle. “I didn’t know about the restaurant before. My daughter saw it on the internet and I called (about the free meals) and they showed up.”
For the record, he and his three brothers, Juan, Luis and Victor Escobar are owners of the Gardena El Pollo Inka Restaurant on Artesia Boulevard. The meals delivered come from the kitchen of the local Peruvian restaurant, Atoche says.
He turned to his Facebook page to promote his free meals program and locate seniors in need. Atoche also shared the project with the 1,700 followers on the El Pollo Inka Facebook page and the program took off.
“I found seniors and family members of seniors, who responded,” he says. “I went to every house to meet all of the seniors. Met a lot of people along the way, at different stages of need.”
Another thankful senior recipient of Atoche’s meals is Gardenan Mary Ruth Aldridge.
“The meals are great. It’s a pretty good meal,” Aldridge says. “I don’t even have to go out. It’s ready for you when they bring it.”
About 40 seniors of all ethnic backgrounds receive meals three times a week, with the help of six to eight volunteers. The meals, which consisted of rotisserie chicken, rice, salad and soup was prepared in the El Pollo Inka kitchen Monday, Wednesday and Friday by employee-volunteer Vicente Rogel Solari.
Each meal costs Atoche and the restaurant $5, he says.
There have been some monetary donations that helps cover his costs, as well as contributions from his brothers, Atoche says. The rest comes out of his pocket.
“I feel blessed to be able to help people,” he says. “My real estate business did well this year (before the virus) and I wanted to reach out to the community.”
Atoche says his volunteers have been a godsend and ask for nothing in return.
“They just show up and go to work (delivering meals to Gardena seniors),” he says. “I give them a meal as a ‘thank you,’ and if I have gift cards or gas cards, I’ll pass those along, too.”
Charity has been a major part of lives of Atoche and his brothers. He credits his mother, Maria Atoche, for their spirit of generosity and sharing. She was 85 at the time of her death and is remembered by many for her Gardena business, Franco Bakery, he says.
“(Helping others) is ingrained in me. My mother, who passed away four years ago, would always give to others when we were kids,” Atoche says. “She was a go-getter. The one who was always making connections. Always giving things away. She used to have a box of clothing in the bakery. People would come in and she knew who needed help. She’d say, ‘pick some clothes.’ She was our guardian angel. That’s my inspiration.”
Atoche and his volunteers have served more than 2,400 meals since March and his plan was to conclude his program on July 3. But on July 6, Atoche was still delivering more than 30 meals to appreciative seniors.
‘I might find a way to continue, maybe one or two times a week,” Atoche says. “I thought I would be finished, but I might continue (on a smaller scale). There are a few people I still need regular meals.