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Sandy Banks

SWAT Team Goes the Extra Mile to Help Fulfill Disabled Kids' Dreams

March 04, 2001|Sandy Banks

Never mind that more than 20,000 runners will be jostling this morning for space at the start of the Los Angeles Marathon. I don't imagine Johnny Garcia will be hard to spot.

He'll be the grinning 15-year-old in the wheelchair--head bobbing, arms waving--being pushed along the 26-mile course by a phalanx of cops, clad in tank tops bearing the logo of the LAPD SWAT team.

It will be as close as Johnny will ever come to running, as close as he'll ever get to his dream of becoming a police officer.

And it will also be a glimpse of true bravery for the city's crime-fighting elite--men who face danger daily and never flinch but never had to carry the kind of burden that comes from knowing you might never be able to stand on your own two feet.

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You might call Orthopaedic Hospital the equivalent of a Special Weapons and Tactics team for children with crippling disabilities. They're the specialists, loaded with the firepower and expertise to treat the most serious bone, muscle and joint diseases.

In 1994, the SWAT team adopted the hospital and began hosting annual holiday parties and toy giveaways, picnics and trips to Dodger games. Eventually, officers began dropping by the hospital to visit patients.

"The morale boost from that was incredible," says Mary Beth McKee, the hospital's director of development. "Here's a kid who's feeling pretty down, stuck in bed, will never walk. And here's this big guy from SWAT and he likes me, he wants to spend time with me. These guys became their heroes."

Four years ago, the officers decided to do more. They would use their run in Southern California's annual law enforcement race--the 120-mile Baker-to-Vegas relay--to raise money for the hospital. They would each run a portion of the race in full regalia--tactical vests, boots, about 40 pounds of gear--to symbolize carrying the hopes and aspirations of Orthopaedic's kids.

For Orthopaedic, the $50,000 the SWAT team raised was more than a goodwill gesture, it was part of the hospital's lifeblood. As it has for all of its 90 years, Orthopaedic relies on donations and grants for most of its budget, which now runs about $6.5 million a year. Doctors volunteer their time, and the hospital will not turn away a child whose family cannot pay.

More than 12,000 kids--most from poor families--visit the hospital each year, needing treatment for everything from broken arms to bone cancer to chronic, disabling conditions like arthritis or cerebral palsy. Many, like Johnny, spend years in the hospital's care.

Johnny was born with cerebral palsy, mildly brain-damaged and unable to control his arms and legs. At 5, "he couldn't stand, he couldn't sit alone, someone had to do everything for him," recalls his mother, Carmen Garcia.

In the last 10 years, he has endured 18 surgeries and hundreds of therapy sessions. Now, he can sit comfortably in a wheelchair and walk, haltingly, with the aid of a walker. "It has been like a miracle"--not just for Johnny, but for his family, his mother says. "Now he bathes himself, he goes to the bathroom, he can feed himself." But surgery and therapy have taken Johnny about as far as he can go medically, said his doctor, Wilfred Krom. "The rest," he said, "depends on will."

Many kids Johnny's age wind up giving in to the pain and frustration of their ailments, as their growing bodies make the challenge of controlling balky limbs more difficult. They begin to lose ground; exhaustion forces them back into their wheelchairs.

"For Johnny, we want this to be a beginning," not an end, his mother says. "He still has many dreams."

That makes today's race not just a means of raising money for a needy cause, but also a way to raise the bar for a needy kid. Johnny might never run a footrace on his own, but he will always remember the chorus of big men who taught him what it feels like to run with a crowd.

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It may have been something they once did on boss' orders: Time for community service, guys. Go hang out with some crippled kids. Do something good that doesn't involve a gun and a badge.

But it's clear that this marriage between cops and kids has brought something special to lives on both sides.

"Yeah, it's a nice thing for the department to do, but it's gone way beyond that," says SWAT officer Enrique Anzaldo. "Most of us don't spend much time thinking about how lucky we are. We've got our jobs, our families, whatever problems we think we have.

"You look at these kids, at their families, how much they appreciate the smallest things we do. Sometimes at the Christmas party, I have to stop and take a deep breath. . . . I think about the courage they show every day."

When Anzaldo ran the marathon last year, he passed dozens of runners pushing wheelchairs, raising money for one cause or another. Later, talking in the locker room with his sergeant and his partner, Jaime Rubalcava, the idea came up: "Why don't we run the marathon for the kids? We pitched it to the lieutenant, and it went from three guys to 26 in a heartbeat."

Today, 26 SWAT officers will take turns pushing Johnny along the marathon route, one mile each. "He's a big kid," says Lt. Mike Albanese, with a chuckle. "So I don't imagine it'll be easy.

"But the fact is, we might be sore, but we're going to walk away when it's done. The real story is this kid, having a dream and for a little while, at least, giving us a chance to bring that dream to life."

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Sandy Banks' column runs twice weekly. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com

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