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Beneficiaries and colleagues mourn Callon’s death

The death on Sunday of Lynda Callon, longtime executive director of the Westside Community Action Network (CAN) Center, prompted an outpouring of grief and gratitude from people whose lives Callon had touched.

Callon was known as a tireless advocate for the Westside and especially for its undocumented immigrants, many of whom worked as day laborers and some of whom struggled with alcohol and drug abuse. Many of Callon’s former colleagues also expressed sadness at the news of her death and admiration for her life’s work.

Several people who regularly received the center’s services stood outside under the bridge seeking shelter from the Monday morning rain. Some learned of Callon’s death from Kansas City Hispanic News and expressed shock and sadness.

Adolfo talked with Hispanic News. “This is something really very sad for all of us. I have been coming here a couple of years but there are guys that have been here for a lot longer. … She always helped us in whatever way she could to get food or help us find work. She was a very good person, always pleasantly greeting the people that she would meet.”

Andres Castañeda heard the news as he spoke with Hispanic News. “It is a deep pain for all of us. It’s a pain to the soul … because she was a person that one felt was more then a friend – she was family. She did all this to help us Mexicans. She got us a place to shower and have food and she offered this place where we could gather.”

Fernando Garcia, originally from Chihuahua, Mexico met Callon 11 years ago. He came to the states with a cousin looking for work; the cousin returned Garcia stayed. He ended up an assistant to Callon doing basic cleaning and pitching in, doing the cooking for special events like holidays or on cold days when the work was not readily available.

“She would ask me if I could cook something for the men so that they could have something special to eat while they were just around here.”
Tears roll down his face as he talked of the importance of Callon in their lives of the men.

“There are so many things. … I remember all the fiestas. She would still be here working and there would be people here. She would put me in charge of that. Even If I had work, I took those days off because it was something I could do for the men and her.”

“We always called her mama. Has mother arrived or did mother already leave? We always treated her like a mother. I am very content that I was able to spend time with her.”

He will always remember the greeting when she arrived and the admonition when she would leave. “Good morning and good night. Remember no tequila, no beer, no drugs and no bad women. … She always had good counsel for us.”

CAN Center volunteer Mary Lou Hernandez said Monday “She’d been sick now for about a month,” Hernandez told Hispanic News. “It was very quick, as far as we’re concerned. We were expecting her to come back. We cleaned out her office and had everything ready for her. She went to The University of Kansas Hospital two or three days ago. She called the ambulance herself. She said, ‘I don’t feel good.’ She was on a respirator since then. They disconnected her (Sunday), and then she passed away on her own. She wanted us to keep the center going.”

Hernandez said she had been going through a difficult time last year and told Callon she needed something to do.

“She basically told me, ‘Mary, whatever you want to do, you do it,’” Hernandez said. “It’s kind of like my calling anymore. I’m lost. … What’s going to happen here, I don’t know anymore.”

Hernandez said Callon was “like the only stable person” many of the center’s service recipients knew in Kansas City “who would accept them.”

In or outside of the CAN center Hernandez said, “They’re all mourning here, grieving,” she said. “They’re wondering, ‘What’s going to happen to us now?’ The men started creating this little altar for her.”

Some of the men came by and lit candles in honor of Callon’s passing.

Kansas City police officer Octavio “Chato” Villalobos, who worked with Callon at the center, said she “was really the heart of this organization.”

“There’s a ton of work to be done,” Villalobos said. “She had this amazing talent of assessing everybody’s individual talents and accessing resources within the neighborhood, volunteers – and that’s what she did with us as officers, too. She really helped us work at our strengths. … She really knew how to see the good in people and empower them to give back to the community.”

Callon held people accountable and did it with “tough love,” he said.

“When she said the Westside was the best side, that was her saying and that’s what her whole life’s dream was, to make this a neighborhood where kids could grow up and be safe and people can retire and feel proud to be part of this community.”

Asked whether Callon ruffled some feathers along the way, Villalobos said she did, “but you can’t tell me that people didn’t respect her.

“My name for her – she was my mama bear, always ready to give you a hug but always ready to protect the den.”

Kansas City police officer Matt Tomasic, who also worked with Callon at the center, said he was sure what Callon would have wanted those who were part of the CAN Center to do.

“I think that Lynda would be telling us to get out there and help people, and don’t let this slow us down or stop the mission, the ministry to the poor,” Tomasic said. “We’re planning on staying. Who knows what it’s going to look like? I can’t tell you (whether) we’re going to hire somebody to fill Lynda’s role. But we will be open and having the same hours we’ve always had.”

CAN Center volunteer Marcella Morales Gaona wrote in an email to Kansas City Hispanic News that people had streamed into Callon’s hospital room all day Sunday.

“Hers was a horribly fast death to cancer that was diagnosed in late September,” Gaona wrote. “She was unrelenting in ensuring that (the center) would succeed. And it did, receiving national acclaim.”

Hispanic News also received an email from community activist Florentino “Tino” Camacho Jr. in which he called Callon “a caring, loving, firm, direct, honest and powerful force for justice for the newcomers.”

The CAN Center was founded in 1994. Callon was hired full time in 2000 after having volunteered at the center for five years.

The center, which grew from a community policing concept to counteract rising crime and disorder in the 1990s, is intended to serve “disengaged, disenfranchised neighborhoods in distress,” according to its website (http://www.westsidecan.org). The site includes a “wish list” for in-kind donations or financial sponsorships and volunteer medical services, office and kitchen supplies, a storage unit and a variety of items for its day-labor program.

Villalobos told Hispanic News that a celebration of Callon’s life, including a luncheon, will take place starting at 10 a.m. Friday, Oct. 17, at the center, 2130 Jefferson St., Kansas City, Mo., 64108.

Jose Faus contributed to this article.