Jesus Esparza, 44, far right, holds his 3-year-old daughter, next to his 19-year-old son, center, his wife, left, and his 12-year-old son, far left, for a portrait. Esparza said that everyone excepted for his 19-year-old son tested positive for COVID-19. / Jesús Esparza, residente del vecindario de Washington, sostiene un letrero durante una protesta el 17 de julio de 2020. Photo courtesy of / Foto cortesía de Jesus Esparza.

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From feeding families in need to co-leading protests against crime affecting his area, Jesus Esparza has served as a leader in the Washington neighborhood near Downtown Long Beach. But when he and his family contracted COVID-19 recently, the roles reversed.

Esparza’s wife, his 12-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter began feeling symptoms more than two weeks ago. Esparza’s lungs and kidneys began to hurt, he felt weak, and, like his son, he lost his sense of taste and smell and developed a cough. His daughter developed a fever.

Esparza’s wife was the only one still bringing an income for the family but needed to pause her warehouse job to recover from the virus. Esparza has been unemployed after a pipe fell on his back while working at a construction site over a year ago.

Now, with sources of income put on hold, the cost of rent and bills started piling up.

Esparza, 44, a prominent leader as the president of the Washington Neighborhood Association, said he was too embarrassed to ask for help. But neighbors like Iris Ornelas convinced him to change his mind and helped him create a GoFundMe.

“We need to be there for him just like he’s been there for us,” Ornelas said.

Esparza said that because his family does not have medical insurance, they haven’t gone to a doctor. They’ve only bought aspirin and ibuprofen to treat the symptoms and also resting to recover, he said.

While Esparza said that his family’s symptoms are not as serious compared to others, he still felt concerned, having heard of the deaths, hospitalizations and other people without insurance.

“All those thoughts were the ones that weighed heavy on my mind,” he said.

Washington neighborhood resident Jesus Esparza holds a sign during a protest on July 17, 2020. Photo by Crystal Niebla.

Esparza began his passion for community organizing in 2009, when he had graduated from a city’s five-month Neighborhood Leadership Program, a multilingual program that provides skills and resources for those want to get involved. His children motivated him do more in his community so that he create “a world full of love, hope, trust and unity” for them, he said in Spanish.

Esparza first moved to the Washington neighborhood in 2014 after living in the Willmore neighborhood further south since 2001. One of the most visible community issues he noticed was the large amount of garbage in the streets and alleys.

“It was a dump,” he said, chuckling.

He began knocking on doors to introduce himself to neighbors, and then he joined the bilingual Washington Neighborhood Association. When the association president stepped down, his peers voted for him to take her place.

A young girls walks with a rake after a neighborhood cleanup pre-COVID in the Washington neighborhood in Long Beach. Photo courtesy of Jesus Esparza.

Now, he coordinates neighborhood cleanup days, food distributions, street decorations, festive caravans, tree planting and even some community marches.

Councilwoman Mary Zendejas, who oversees the Washington neighborhood, said via an emailed statement that she was “absolutely heartbroken” when she found out that Esparza and his family tested positive for COVID-19, describing him as “an invaluable partner” to her office.

“During Covid he has shown great courage, compassionate, and most importantly, humility toward his neighbors in the Washington area and beyond,” she said.

Ornelas, the neighbor, said she first met Esparza about four years ago in an association meeting at the Long Beach Rescue Mission. Since then, she said Esparza has helped connect her with resources such as city phone numbers to report graffiti and illegal trash dumping and the area’s patrol officer.

“Jesus does a lot for the community,” she said. “He’s a go-to for everyone.”

Neighbors convinced him to launch the fundraiser last week, and so far it has raised about $1,500. Esparza said people have left food and some money outside of his home, too.

“I am praying for a speedy recovery for him and his family,” Zendejas said.