Francisco “Panchito” Olachea starts his days by passing out first-aid supplies and legal advice to deported migrants outside a soup kitchen a few yards south of the Mariposa Port of Entry.
He carries a backpack full of vitamins, electrolytes, allergy medicine, socks, talcum powder and chlorine tablets, all of which has earned him the nickname “The Walking Ambulance.”
“It’s hard to say ‘I have it, but I left it at home,’” Olachea, 52, said in accented but effortless English. “That’s something you learn in the United States: you have to be equipped for everything you do.”
Olachea is a freelance operator in an informal web of support for dispossessed people in Nogales, Sonora that includes organizations such as the Kino Border Initiative and No More Deaths.
His compassion for migrants comes from the fact that he knows first-hand what it’s like to be deported. At the age of 18, he moved from Ensenada, Baja California to the U.S., where he lived for 30 years before being deported four years ago, he said.
But while being deported changed where he lives, it didn’t change how he lives.
While in the U.S., Olachea worked long hours repairing cars and refrigerators. Then one day he realized that he was tired of working only for money.
“I worked so hard trying to get the million dollars,” Olachea said. “But I didn’t make it. So I said to myself, ‘What am I doing? Do I want to keep working 17 hours a day?’“
Instead, he decided that he wanted to help the people around him, especially the elderly.
“When I look at my neighbors and see that they have nobody I see that this is what I want to do,” he said.
Olachea began to work as a caregiver for the elderly in Phoenix, where he met David Hickox, 83, who suffers from diabetes and gets around in a wheelchair. Olachea took care of Hickox for nearly a decade and they developed a close relationship.
“I feel that I owe Frank a debt I won’t be able to pay very easily,” Hickox said in a phone interview.
Their roles were reversed when Olachea was deported and Hickox began to support Olachea with a portion of his monthly Social Security checks. Such a role reversal is nothing new for them. “Sometimes he’s my dad and sometimes he’s my son,” Hickox said.
“I’m glad I can send him money so he can eat and buy the supplies he needs,” said Hickox, who is now being cared for by Olachea’s daughter Christina while she studies business at Arizona State University.
That money allows Olachea to help not only migrants, but also the homeless and victims of accidents. In addition to helping at a downtown soup kitchen and making plans to open a shelter for people suffering from mental illness, Olachea also volunteers with the National Commission of Emergencies (CNE, for its initials in Spanish), a nationwide civic group that provides emergency medical services when hospitals and the Red Cross are overwhelmed.
Three or four times a week he hops into an ambulance and rushes to the scenes of house fires, car accidents, and other emergencies.
“Panchito likes doing this. He does it from his heart,” said Salvador Lopez, one of the CNE’s volunteer ambulance drivers and a supervisor at Nogales, Sonora’s emergency call center.
Lopez, Olachea and their colleagues at the CNE fill a void left by the rapid growth of the city and the government’s struggle to keep up with that growth. “
There are ambulances, but there aren’t enough to go around all of Nogales,” Lopez said.
Most of the emergency calls Olachea and Lopez respond to are in the neighborhoods surrounding maquiladoras, or foreign-owned factories, on the southern side of town. The drive from the main hospital, located close to the international border, to the south side can add more than 10 minutes to the response time, Lopez said.
They deal with between three and eight emergencies every day, Lopez said, each of which costs them money. Just like Olachea’s struggle to get medical supplies for migrants, the CNE has to find ways to pay for bandages, blood-oxygen testers, gas and repairs for the ambulances. “It’s hard to say to a patient in an emergency, ‘If you don’t pay then we won’t take you,’“ Lopez said.
Much of their funding comes from going door-to-door asking for donations. They also receive money from the national office of the CNE and the Kiwanis Club in Arizona, Lopez said, and the Maquiladora Association of Sonora donated $50,000 to build their ambulance station in 2010.
“What we most need is for somebody to donate an ambulance with a working motor,” said Lopez. “We have three ambulances, but the motors are very damaged.” The CNE is trying to open stations in neighborhoods like Colinas del Sol and Buenos Aires, but without ambulances there would be no point, he said.
While the CNE works to get funding, Olachea continues to respond to emergency calls, care for deported migrants at the border, and work at a soup kitchen for the homeless. His motto: “A little bit of everything, as best I can.”
To donate to the Nogales chapter of the National Commission of Emergencies, see their Facebook page.