Woman who has strengthened community now needs community

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MOLINE — They still knock at the door of her tidy blue house in Moline’s Floreciente neighborhood, the people looking for help, looking for a hand, some support, some love.

Irma Cruz always opens her door and her arms, just as she has for 10 years, believing that when you are helping someone else, you are helping yourself, too.

It is more difficult now. Irma is fighting her second brain tumor, one that is inoperable. The woman whose friends call the “foremother of advocacy” needs the help this time, they say.

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Xochi Herrera Pannell, Irma’s best friend, said many people who have faced similar crises can relate to Irma’s situation. “But what I think is different is her drive to help people even while she is facing her second big hurdle,” Ms. Herrera Pannell said.

Her friends and community leaders say her impact on the Floreciente neighborhood has had a ripple effect on the entire city, strengthening it in unmeasurable ways.

“When you take each individual case she’s worked on, it may not seem like a lot. But when you take all the people she’s helped, whenever you help someone, you set off a chain of events. You help prevent them from going into a crisis or help them get over a hurdle or barrier,” said Connie Barrett, a family advocate for Casa Guanajuato.

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“She’s helped keep a lot of families out of crisis, helped people succeed when they get here, helped them get on their feet and move on,” Ms. Barrett added.

Ms. Cruz is now at risk of losing her house — where her three children and three grandchildren also live. Despite having insurance, the medical bills are piling up. Friends have opened an account and are hoping people are willing to support Ms. Cruz financially in any way they can.

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Six weeks ago, Quad-Cities doctors told Ms. Cruz she had six months to live and to get things in order. Then they sent her to a surgeon in Peoria, who offered a ribbon of hope.

A new technology available there targets radiation straight to the tumor. If successful, the treatment will allow her to walk out of the cloud of depression and uncertainty Ms. Cruz said shrouds her daily routine.

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“I’m sad thinking it could be anytime,” she said. “Sometimes, I don’t know if being here is better or worse.”

Ms. Cruz said there are days she’d rather stay in bed with the curtains drawn and the door shut, but she makes herself get up, for her family, for her grandchildren and for the knocks at the door.
She has been hospitalized twice in the past three weeks. Still, last weekend found Ms. Cruz again at the hospital, this time to aid a friend who asked for her help and a ride.

Ms. Cruz entered the U.S. illegally in 1979 at the age of 17 after marrying an American citizen. She did not know English or how to drive, something she felt was a necessity after she had children. Her husband, who is now deceased, wasn’t supportive, so when he’d fall asleep at night she taught herself how to drive.

In 1983 she became a legal resident. In 1991, she became an American citizen, something else her husband did not support. To prepare for the test, Ms. Cruz would wait until everyone in the house was asleep, then sit in the bathroom with the door shut and a book on her lap.

In 1996, doctors discovered she had a brain tumor. Pregnant with her sixth child, she waited until her son was born to have surgery. She was given a 5 percent chance of surviving.
She did, though it took her at least three months to recuperate.

She began working in the Floreciente Center in 1999, helping on average 400 people a year, referring her neighbors to social services, translating school letters and court documents and, on her own time, driving them to appointments.

Moline Police Capt. Greg Heist has known Ms. Cruz for eight years and witnessed her at work at the center. “She was always on the phone helping someone, answering questions, driving people in her own car to doctor appointments.

“I remember her being personally involved with anything, things not in her job description. I always had the feeling she did just about whatever was needed to help someone,” Capt. Heist added.

Two and a half years ago, Ms. Cruz began feeling symptoms again — dizziness, headaches, numbness in the face and loss of balance. She went to a doctor who told her they probably didn’t get all of the tumor the first time and it had grown.

She quit working at the center, but her clients and other people new to the area found their way to her door. Ms. Cruz continued to help them from her home when she could.

Her doctors watched her carefully, until the day last month when she was told the tumor had gotten too big. There was nothing the Quad-Cities doctors could do.

But Ms. Cruz feels there is more in life for her to do. Once her radiation treatments in Peoria are complete, she wants to visit others in the hospital with brain tumors and lift their spirits, she said.
“I’m making that cry to the community,” said Ms. Herrera Pannell. “I just care about my friend. I’m worried about my friend. We’ve circled around her to help her around this, another bump in the road. I see how she suffers,” she said.

“She’s not one to ask for help,” said Ms. Cruz’s longtime friend, Arcillia Dominguez. “She’s so used to serving and helping others she cannot picture herself in that situation now. She just wants to help, help, help others. I tell her, ‘Irma, now it is your turn’.”

“She really needs the support of everyone now, the entire community,” she added.

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