Above: Yolanda “Yoli” Diaz. Photograph by Allison Pharmkis.
YOLANDA DIAZ HEARD the fear in her son’s voice. His doctor was sending him to a plastic surgeon but didn’t say why. Diaz went with him. “I hate to be the bad guy,” the surgeon said, “but it’s melanoma, and it’s cancer.”
Mario Diaz Jr. was 23. He had a baby girl but no health insurance—“just starting out,” his mother recalls. They ended up at M.D. Anderson, the lauded cancer hospital in Houston. At check-in, the hospital needed a $20,000 down payment. Diaz demolished the family’s savings and pulled out every credit card she owned to piece it together. “At that point,” she says, “it’s just paper—a way to survive.”
The personal blows continued: her father’s cancer diagnosis, his death nine months later, her mother’s death 18 months after that. “I was in a real dark place,” Diaz says.
While leading a fundraiser in Las Cruces for the American Cancer Society, she met a woman who was selling plates of food to buy gas for a family member’s trips to the doctor. She knew right then that Las Cruces needed a new organization.
She had a bit of retail experience, but nothing in social work or fundraising. This year, CARE Las Cruces (Cancer Aid Resource & Education) notched its sixth anniversary and passed a goal of giving $500,000 to patients who need help with living expenses. The all-volunteer group works out of a downtown office that former mayor Rubén Smith owns, charging so little in rent that, Diaz says, “he’s not even covering his costs.” Smith calls Diaz “a humble bulldog,” citing her persistence at nagging city and county officials for grant money and especially organizing her annual street party, La Gran Fiesta, CARE’s main fundraiser.
For Diaz—“Yoli” to everyone in town—“this is all about helping the people.”
Assistance can range from $1,500 to $2,500—money that might go toward a mortgage payment, keep the power turned on, or buy new tires to drive to Albuquerque for chemo. It won’t pay for the treatment itself, and those costs give rise to the side effect every cancer patient suffers. Diaz calls it “financial toxicity.”
“Cancer’s expensive, and CARE can only help for a defined period of time,” she says. “We can give you a little room to make a plan. We’re not the answer.”
She might find one, though. Diaz plans to bulldog politicians for ways to cover patients’ lost income and other expenses. In the meantime, she continues to meet with clients, who lay out problems that soak into her soul.
“You can later find me crying. Not in front of them, though.”
Today Mario is healthy—and insured. Diaz has grown into someone who can decipher spreadsheets, speed-dial politicians, and rack up honors like her 2018 New Mexico True Hero award.
“When I started this,” she says, “I knew it would be a lot of work. It was hard for my husband to understand. So I tell him, ‘I’m doing enough good for both of us to get into heaven.’”
HOW TO HELP
CARE Las Cruces accepts monetary donations as well as in-kind services and items for silent auctions. Volunteers are always welcome.
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