Joe Gonzales was a popular 13-year-old, described by classmates as one of the best young baseball players around Whittier, when he found out last year he had leukemia.
His energy was fading by the time he completed sixth grade in May, 1986, and he was able to attend only a few days of seventh grade at South Whittier Intermediate School.
Joe's situation prompted advisers to the school's computer club to create an unusual program that relieved some of the terminally ill boy's loneliness and isolation and taught his classmates about compassion and the value of life.
The program allowed club members to serve as Joe's link to the school through computer letters, phone calls and visits. It also led the club to a national award from Apple Computer.
Touched by Joe's desire to stay in school despite his illness, the co-sponsors of the school's Panther Komputer Klub--computer literacy teacher Irene Hubert and assistant principal Albert Crespo--suggested that club members use their meeting time to lend Joe moral support through telephone calls, letters and visits.
The students agreed, and the "I Love You, Joe" project began last September.
The 30 to 35 club members split into five committees, each alternating the weekly responsibility of keeping in touch with Joe. Because Joe did not have a computer when the project began, club members kept in touch by telephoning him or visiting when Joe's health permitted.
At Christmas, the club held a holiday party for Joe and his family. Crespo knew Joe appreciated the presents but thought he would benefit even more if he had computer to use for schoolwork and to communicate with other kids.
So Crespo called the Make a Wish foundation for the terminally ill, and the foundation gave Joe a computer in February. Joe was able to do a little homework and send a few messages to students via a modem, but Crespo said the illness kept Joe from using the computer extensively.
Joe has been in and out of the hospital during the last year. Chemotherapy has left him bald and given his face an unhealthy pallor and puffiness, Crespo said.
Still, Joe remains cheerful and talks about wanting to return to school, Crespo said, though the leukemia is no longer in remission--meaning his bone marrow is again producing immature white blood cells that kill healthy blood cells.
Joe is now undergoing experimental treatment at the Jonathan Jaques Children's Cancer Center at Memorial Medical Center in Long Beach.
Joe's parents, Ramona and Manuel Gonzales, spend most of their time at the hospital and declined to be interviewed because of their nervousness about their son's uncertain condition, said Melanie Ingle, school reintegration project coordinator at the medical center.
Frank Marin, 13, a computer club member, last saw Joe on his classmate's 14th birthday on May 28. The club gave Joe a computer joy stick as a gift. Joe appreciated it but was not feeling great, Frank said.
He told us that "he enjoyed the computer and wanted to come back to school . . . ," Frank said. "He would always say that he was going to go back to school . . . ."
Classmates' contact with Joe has been limited in the last few weeks because of his deteriorating condition.
"He knows that he's going to die, but he just ignores it for a while and enjoys life," Frank said. "He doesn't talk about it. We don't ask him."
Ingle said Joe does not have a lot of energy these days, but usually perks up when anybody mentions the Dodgers. "He's been listening to the games on the radio," she said.
Leticia Enriquez, 13, said the yearlong project had created strong friendships, both for Joe and among the club members.
"I learned that it doesn't take a big present to make somebody feel good," she said.
All the while, Hubert had been keeping a scrapbook of the project and submitted it in the national Apple Computer Clubs Merit Competition, and South Whittier was selected as a national co-winner in the middle-school community service category.
Hubert went to Washington last week to accept the club's national award, for which Apple gave the club a new computer and a party on June 28. But the real reward, Hubert said, is not a material one.
"One of the greatest things they have received from this is compassion and caring for other people," Hubert said. "This is a project that will stay with them for the rest of their lives."