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Graduate has set his sights high

Grej Pesjaka has come a long way — geographically, medically and academically. His future looks bright.

June 08, 2011|Steve Lopez
  • Among the 33 students in the Pilgram School's 2011 graduating class are students from Albania, China, Vietnam, Kenya and South Korea.
Among the 33 students in the Pilgram School's 2011 graduating class… (Sean Twomey )

In early September of 2001, an 8-year-old Albanian boy arrived at Los Angeles International Airport, newly blind and traveling alone in search of medical help. He spoke no English, didn't know a soul in California and was trembling when flight attendants led him off the plane.

On Monday night, almost 10 years later, the same boy walked shaggy-haired across a stage at his high school graduation at the Pilgrim School west of downtown Los Angeles, smiling as he was cheered.

But let's go back to the beginning.

Grej Pesjaka was a normal, healthy, soccer-playing kid in Albania until, with no warning, he lost his sight in a single day. Doctors in his homeland couldn't help him. They recommended he try to get to the United States, but how?

His parents asked everyone they could think of for help, and finally one doctor called a medical equipment company that had worked with an American nurse. The company took a long shot and called the nurse, Chandice Covington, but she was in the middle of a move from a Michigan university to UCLA.

There were many reasons not to get involved. How would she get medical care for a child who was a stranger to her? Grej didn't speak English and had no medical insurance. Still, as a pediatric nurse, Covington couldn't say no to a child in need.

She told his parents that if they wanted to send him to Los Angeles, she'd do what she could. It was a terrifying leap, but they saw it as the only chance for Grej to see again. They put him on a plane alone and hoped for the best.

And then, days later, came Sept. 11 and the terrorist attacks in New York. Grej's mother called in a panic from Albania, fearing she'd sent her disabled and terrified son to a country at war.

When Covington called UCLA Medical Center to see if doctors would examine a child without health insurance, she was told to bring him over right away because pediatricians had nothing else to do.

Patients were cancelling appointments as they tried to make sense of the East Coast attacks.

UCLA doctors referred Grej to ophthalmologist Edgar Thomas in Beverly Hills, and he quickly diagnosed a retinal disease known as FEVR. The boy needed immediate surgery, the doctor said. If they waited, there'd be no hope to restore any of Grej's sight. From Albania, his parents gave the go-ahead, and the surgery was performed for free at Good Samaritan Hospital.

Grej got some vision back. More surgeries would follow.

During those rough stretches, Covington said, Grej won her over with his courage and will to get better, even when treatment was scary and painful. She recalls a time when, after being poked and pricked dozens of times, he eagerly offered up his little hand for yet another IV line.

"Even at so young an age, he was a survivor," said Covington.

At first Grej lived with Covington and her daughter, but when it became clear that treatment would take years, Grej's parents and brother moved to Los Angeles and got their own apartment. His mother found work as a nanny.

Grej attended public school, but it was huge and impersonal, so Covington helped his family find the Pilgrim School, which is affiliated with the First Congregational Church. The whole campus, preschool through 12th grade, has just 400 students, and it emphasizes cultural diversity and social responsibility.

But it wasn't free.

Mark Brooks, head of the school, has lots of friends, though, and he's good at shaking them down when he needs to. Grej was "adopted" by 18 different people, most of them anonymous, who covered every cent of his high school tuition.

"I think it's a good thing," Grej said, telling me the anonymity makes the good deeds seem all the nobler.

In 2005, Covington left Los Angeles for a teaching job out of state. But she was at Grej's graduation Monday night along with Mary Romano, a court translator who speaks Albanian and has helped Grej and his family adapt to their new home.

Grej's mother, Ludmilla, wore the glow of a proud mother at her son's graduation. The little boy she heroically and fearfully packed onto a plane a decade ago has prospered.

Not that it was easy. Grej remains blind in one eye and has only 50% vision in the other. But he is clearly thriving.

Monday night's graduating class also included students from China, Vietnam, Kenya and South Korea. Sun Joo Sophie Park, who delivered the salutatory address while standing on tiptoes behind the church lectern, had something personal and flattering to say about every one of her 33 classmates.

"We're afraid," Park said of the lurching leap they're about to make. "But confident."

Park was afraid but confident three years ago when she left behind family in South Korea. She wanted to be a lawyer and believed an American education would help. She was taken in by Cynthia Harding and her husband Ciro Hurtado, a Peruvian immigrant, whose daughter graduated from Pilgrim last year.

Sophie eventually changed her mind about law. In the fall, she will attend UCLA as a pre-med student.

Grej is going to UC Riverside and wants to be a lawyer. The kid who courageously confronted his fears said he likes to argue, and he did pretty well in mock trials at Pilgrim.

You get the feeling he'll be good at whatever he chooses to do. But Monday night wasn't about the future, it was about the moment. Grej stood with his graduating classmates in a shower of confetti, and they let out a whoop loud enough to be heard in Albania.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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