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Weeks to Live, and It's All for Kids

Benny Hernandez, whose education career had just begun, is honored for contributions he hopes don't stop.

February 06, 2001|ELAINE GALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As his 7-year-old son sat drawing a picture of happy faces and sad faces, Anaheim school board member Benny Hernandez stood before the dozen well-wishers Monday and outlined for them his hopes for the many children he will never see grow up.

Hernandez, who has been told he has only a few weeks to live because of a brain tumor, said he plans to spend his scant time helping children get an education, both by visiting classrooms in his district and serving as honorary chairman of this year's KinderCaminata--a title he was given Monday.

The ceremony, held at the Rancho Santiago Community College District office, included a presentation by the president of Los Amigos, Amin David, and Galal Kernahan, the KinderCaminata founder. They spoke about Hernandez and his contributions.

The longtime county program brings thousands of underprivileged kindergartners to visit colleges for a day, to plant early the seed of inspiration that one day they'll be on campus to enroll. Hernandez, 44, previously served as president of the group, one of his many contributions to those who share his history: youngsters without much money and who don't come from schooled families, but who still can get a good education and even hold public office.

"I want to encourage our young people to go forward," said Hernandez, the son of a janitor.

The eighth annual KinderCaminata event this spring will involve more than 6,000 kindergarten children visiting six colleges in Orange County. The honorary chairman position was created for Hernandez, and the presentation was held in advance so he could attend in good health.

A Work Ethic From His Father

Hernandez worked while attending Loma Linda University, earning a bachelor's degree in social work. He became a social worker in Los Angeles and specialized in child abuse prevention before enrolling at Cal State Long Beach and earning a master's in social work.

He was a substitute teacher for three years in several Orange County school districts, and in October he began teaching sixth grade full time in Compton. He taught for less than four months, then had emergency brain surgery last month.

Hernandez said he has worked since age 14. His father, Enrique, inspired him with his unwavering work ethic and by working his way up from janitor to plant supervisor.

"With his hard work, he climbed up the ladder," Hernandez said. "That's an important message for young people." His father died of a stroke about two years ago.

Hernandez has been active in community groups such as Los Amigos and led a 50-member choir where he worships, the Seventh-day Adventist church on Broadway in Santa Ana. A religious man, Hernandez is still optimistic that God will save his life.

"I know God is with me and that he can do a miracle. Whatever his plan is, I can accept it."

But in the meantime, Hernandez has completed his funeral arrangements. He wants the service at Crystal Cathedral and the burial at Fairhaven Memorial Park in Santa Ana, near some of his relatives.

Besides speaking in classrooms for KinderCaminata about the importance of higher education, his priority is to spend time with his son, Alejandro. He said he's heartbroken that he won't see his son grow up--let alone graduate from college.

In the KinderCaminata ceremony, his son scrawled simple pictures on a white plastic foam cup while Hernandez spoke about his brain surgery and his plan to visit schools until he can no longer walk. With a blue marker, Alejandro drew a small house adorned with an oversized chimney next to a leafy tree, all with a bright sun overhead.

"When he wasn't sick, we used to go to Disneyland and we'd eat at Chuck E. Cheese," said Alejandro, drawing a row of sad faces beneath a row of hearts.

He said he's sometimes sad these days, especially if he thinks about his father going to heaven. Mostly, he said, he tries not to think about it. His father said Alejandro's mother, Erma Ribeiro of Highland Park, will raise their child.

Hernandez, who has not married Ribeiro, lived in a one-bedroom apartment until last summer, when he gave most of his furniture to charity and rented a furnished room in Anaheim.

Three Campaigns, the Last a Winner

Hernandez won a seat on the Anaheim Union High School District board in November after two unsuccessful campaigns. This time around, he spent $8 for posts to affix his campaign posters; he used signs from his last campaign to display around the city.

Now Hernandez is living with a cousin in Loma Linda, along with his 65-year-old mother, who came from Colorado to take care of her son.

Walking slowly with his family, Hernandez left the KinderCaminata ceremony so formal family portraits could be taken together while he was still feeling good. After that, he'll record all the songs he has written over the years--singing and playing the piano.

His advice to children, including his son, are lessons that trickled down from his parents.

"Whatever you do in life, do your best," said Hernandez, his hand resting on the large semicircular scar that wraps around the back of his shorn head. "Tell people how you feel about them. Learn as much as you can. Don't wait until tomorrow."

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