ANTIOCH -- After spending much of her early life overcoming societal hurdles, Carmen Aguilar-Ochoa has worked tirelessly to smooth the path for others.
For decades, Aguilar-Ochoa has been a trailblazer in promoting cultural awareness and sensitivity and helping underserved groups in East Contra Costa.
Each life experience -- seeing her mother save waitress tips to keep a roof over the head of her and two brothers; being discouraged from pursuing higher education; and breaking through barriers to become the first employee of color in the Contra Costa Superior Court system -- helped shape her work combating prejudices and encouraging volunteerism through the nonprofit Give Always to Others & Co.
"All these life experiences shaped me and I said, 'We've got to have a better world,'" said Aguilar-Ochoa, whose family emigrated from Mexico.
"Carmen is that type where if she sees a cause, one way or another, she's going to see that help is provided," said Gilbert Ruiz, a longtime friend and former president of Give Always to Others, or GATO. "She inspires others to want to help."
Following her retirement in 1987 after more than 20 years in the county's legal department, mainly as a judge's assistant, Aguilar-Ochoa got the itch to volunteer. "Being aware of other cultures and how they are unique enriches the community fabric," Aguilar-Ochoa said.
Along with her husband, Charlie, she started producing videos in the late 1980s for local-access cable television, including community shows "East County Focus" and "Solo Para Ti," as well as covering local festivals.
She still remembers one woman's letter thanking them for bringing local events to her sick husband.
Charlie, who died in 2011, worked behind the camera, while Carmen, an admitted control freak, worked out schedules, planned the scripts, directed and edited.
"He was like the backbone, while she was the visionary," said her son, Carlos Ochoa.
The couple recruited teenagers at youth groups and other events to write and perform public service announcements on issues such as the dangers of drugs in suburbia and avoiding gang violence. They also produced Spanish-language documentaries focused on issues such as domestic violence and lead in homes, and prompted Contra Costa television to start an informational program in Spanish.
Over the years, GATO (named after her beloved Siamese cat), an all-volunteer group of mostly East Contra Costa residents that was formed in 1994, has held myriad events to promote Latino and Asian heritage, Earth Day and Black History Month. Before picking up local corporate sponsorships, the Ochoas funded events mainly out of pocket.
"She's a great organizer, and knows how to find small amounts of money and how to execute with very little," said longtime friend Tom LaFleur of Pacific Community Services in Pittsburg. GATO used to stage an art exhibit at Pacific Community Services that featured altars decorated for the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
Recently, her efforts have been focused at Antioch High School, where she graduated in 1958.
"She's a pistol. If there's something that she doesn't agree with, she'll let you know about it," said Louie Rocha, Antioch High's principal and a longtime family friend. "She really believes in doing for others."
In early spring, Aguilar-Ochoa shared some of her large collection of Cesar Chavez photos, flags and memorabilia at the high school's new multicultural room.
Born in Sacramento, Aguilar-Ochoa moved to Antioch at age 8 with her mother and two siblings after her father died in 1948. Her mother worked as a waitress at what is now the New Mecca Cafe in Pittsburg, saving tips in a jar to "make the house possible," and later went back to school in her 50s and became a nurse.
GATO created a scholarship for aspiring nurses in her honor at Pittsburg Adult Education Center.
As a teenager, Aguilar-Ochoa worked in the fields in Brentwood, cutting apricots and picking walnuts.
Antioch's ethnicity during her childhood was predominantly white, and there was a lot of "misunderstanding about other cultures," she said. Aguilar-Ochoa remembers walking to high school with an African-American friend and the taunting they endured.
"When times were hard for her, she knew that it wasn't fair," Carlos Ochoa said. "She feels that more doors should be open for everyone."
Aguilar-Ochoa in April hosted an event at the high school for special needs and handicapped students. After bringing the kids a catered lunch, she was blown away by a blind senior named Eric Navarro. "Carmen just started chatting with him, and her eyes lit up," Rocha said.
Seeing Navarro's gregarious nature and smile as he strummed the guitar inspired her to work toward giving him a scholarship to attend Los Medanos College.
Aguilar-Ochoa says her affinity for special needs students comes from being trained for clerical work after high school rather than being encouraged to pursue higher education.
"There's a whole other world after high school," she said, "and we shouldn't shut anyone out of it."
Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.
Claim to fame: Creator of Give Always to Others & Co.
Quote: "We all have a purpose in life, and we should be asking, what are we doing while we're here to leave footsteps on our community."
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