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Kindred Spirit : Victim's Family Leads March to Ease Loneliness of Childhood Cancer

November 06, 1986|KEN CHAVEZ | Times Staff Writer

COMMERCE — Two months went by and . . . I only cried once, not of pain but of loneliness. I never told my parents. . . . My dad (cried) when the doctor told me I had cancer. . . . I knew I had to stay strong. --from the diary of Leonard Mendoza Jr.

There's a community in Los Angeles undefined by geographic or ethnic lines where 6-year-olds talk to nurses about spinal taps, where children die almost every day.

Its residents are the cancer patients at Childrens Hospital and their families. Like a crime-ridden neighborhood, it's a community most want to avoid, but where Leonard Mendoza Sr. and his wife, Iduvina, have chosen to stay.

The Mendozas' son, Leonard Jr.--"Little Len" as he was called by friends and family--died of leukemia in September at the hospital near Hollywood. He was 17.

Since then the Mendozas and their two daughters, Angie, 19, and Veronica, 21, have worked with local school administrators and friends to stage a walk-a-thon in Leonard's memory. The Mendozas said they hope to raise money and support for the hospital's 1,300 cancer victims.

"We're not doing this for Leonard. He's dead. We have to remember that," said the boy's father, surrounded by his family at their home here. "Not only the kids are sick. (The parents) are dying just as much as the kids are."

The event's organizers expect 2,000 people to join in the 2.1-mile walk Saturday through the neighborhood where Leonard grew up, starting at Commerce City Hall at 9:30 a.m. and ending at Rosewood Park Elementary School, where food donated by local restaurants will be served.

'Share With Them'

"We're out to earn as much as we can," said Diana Tarango, a co-worker of Leonard's father at Dart Warehouse Corp., where he is a data processing manager.

B. J. McIntyre, assistant principal at Suva Intermediate School, stressed that the core group of about 30 volunteers "want to do more than just raise money. We want to go to where the kids are and be there and share with them." (Leonard was a Suva student when his cancer was diagnosed four years ago.)

John McNichols, activities director at Bell Gardens High School where Leonard was a senior, said that, most of all, the young patients at the hospital "don't want to be alone. It seems like one-half of the rooms you look into you see many kids alone."

McNichols said the money raised will probably go to Southern California Children's Services, a nonprofit organization that provides counseling for the children's families and runs a Ronald McDonald House, a boarding home near the hospital for parents.

A frequent hospital visitor, McNichols speculated that transportation problems and jobs keep many parents from staying with their children at the hospital. "And, I think, the closer it gets to the end the harder it is to go (visit)," he said.

In Leonard's case, the sandy-haired youngster who idolized bicycle motocross racers, was rarely without company. A steady stream of Mendoza family friends, including Commerce Mayor James B. Dimas Sr., Leonard's godfather, regularly visited him.

'Attitude Adjuster'

Though Leonard weighed only 90 pounds, "he had the heart of 300-pound football player," McIntyre said. "Even when taking chemotherapy and suffering . . . (he would) make people feel happy about themselves."

Leonard "needed to be around where kids were," McNichols said, so he often brought student government leaders to the hospital to visit their classmate. Leonard was officially the school's assistant treasurer, but students called him the "attitude adjuster."

"Even when he was really sick, he was really nice, trying to talk even through the pain. Everyone was really touched by Leonard," sophomore Janie Anderson said.

During the last two weeks of the boy's life, the Mendoza family "practically lived here," said Carmen Rojo, a nurse in the hospital unit where Leonard died and where the mural on the wall is a silhouette of bony trees in autumn.

Many of the floor nurses went to Leonard's funeral and plan to walk with his family Saturday. "We don't do this with everybody," nurse Annette Hollenbeck said of attending the funeral. "This was an exception. We all knew the family very well."

Joining the nurses will be the five members of the Commerce City Council, about 200 Dart Warehouse employees and the band, football team and cheerleaders at the high school, Tarango said.

With that kind of community involvement, the Mendozas said, they consider themselves lucky. "There's a lot of people (at the hospital) that don't have that kind of support," Mendoza said.

Leonard's mother, Iduvina, sat close to her husband and clasped his arm. "Like my husband says, it's not for Leonard but for the others," she said.

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