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Taking Compassion Personally

Irvine students help raise money for a 4-year-old boy with a rare heart ailment. The effort, including a pancake breakfast, grew from a class project to help the needy.

March 26, 2001|KIMI YOSHINO and DANIEL YI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A project at an Irvine elementary school to help those in need has taken on a human face--that of a 4-year-old boy suffering from a rare heart condition.

About 500 students, parents and firefighters who have befriended the ailing boy, Jeremy Wifler, gathered in an Irvine park Sunday morning for a pancake breakfast that raised about $2,000 to help his family pay medical bills.

That adds to about $350 that students at Vista Verde Elementary School already raised by selling Popsicles after school, one of a series of touching displays of generosity, said Julie Hudash of Kids Helping Kids, which organized Sunday's breakfast.

One student, 8-year-old Josh Varkle, had set aside half of his collection of a dozen Sacajawea gold coins for the fund-raiser. But when the time came to make his donation, Hudash said, Josh clutched his whole hoard in his fist and said, "Mrs. Hudash, I'm giving Jeremy all 12 of my dollars."

The children were participating in a monthlong effort to collect clothes and food for the less privileged. But when they learned about Jeremy and added his medical-fund drive to their goals, their month took on new significance.

"Jeremy is like a saint in our school," Hudash said. "Our kids just love him. . . . It put a face on this program, one specific child they were going to help."

Others have formed special bonds with the boy too.

Orange County Fire Authority firefighters stationed in Irvine have donated hundreds of dollars and hours to his cause. They helped arrange a flight to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where doctors examined Jeremy, who was born with a heart that has an extra aorta. Firefighter and paramedic Jim Cass went with the family in case Jeremy suddenly stopped breathing, one of the side effects of his condition.

Jeremy sleeps hooked to oxygen and heart sensors. Alarms sound, sometimes several times a night, if Jeremy stops breathing. His extra aorta is wrapped around his trachea, making breathing difficult. Jeremy has had two surgeries already, including one that helped anchor the extra aorta to his sternum. But he continues to suffer from seizures.

"You get really desperate," said Rechelle Wifler, Jeremy's mother. "You see this over and over, but you don't know if tonight is going to be the night even though you've been able to bring him back so many times. You don't know if you always will be able to."

Doctors at the Mayo Clinic want to see Jeremy a second time--a visit not covered by the Wiflers' insurance. They need someone to donate a trip on a private jet or thousands of dollars to pay for an air ambulance.

"It's really hard for me to say, 'OK, we do need help,' and to have little people do it," she said. "I don't even know how to begin to express my gratitude."

On Sunday, Cass and other firefighters were flipping flapjacks right alongside the children in Dave Robins Park.

"It is nice to get out for a change when it is not because someone is dying or hurt," said Mission Viejo firefighter Craig Covey, working the spatula on his day off.

The firefighters have grown close to the Wiflers after responding to several 911 calls from Jeremy's parents, usually because Jeremy had stopped breathing or was having a seizure.

"They were just somebody in need," Cass said. "And most firemen, it's in their nature to help. We could obviously see that there were some major things going on. They were at the end of their chain."

On Sunday, Jeremy was at the park with his mother and his father, Patrick Wifler. He had the rare opportunity to run with other children, overcoming an initial bout of shyness. It was not the crowd Jeremy is accustomed to, his mother said. For Jeremy's birthday in December, nearly 40 firefighters joined three of Jeremy's young friends to help him celebrate.

"He's so used to firefighters," Rechelle Wifler said.

They were joined Sunday by more than 100 local families who ate pancakes, rode ponies and took home balloon animals while raising about $2,000.

"It is nothing short of amazing," Rechelle Wifler said. "I'm thrilled and a little surprised."

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