Fairfax High School seniors Alexander Mendez, left, Paris Wise and Gabriel… (Katie Falkenberg, For The…)
He was a shy kid, say classmates and teachers at Fairfax High. Quiet, likable, smart, and determined to go to college — preferably UC Irvine.
But the story of Jose Chojolan is a tough reminder that for all of us, from moment to moment, there are no guarantees.
One day in January the back pain and numbness that had been bothering Jose for several weeks got frighteningly bad. He went to the doctor, underwent emergency surgery for a blood clot in his neck, and ever since, he's been paralyzed below the neck.
In the beginning, although some of Jose's teachers were informed, the 18-year-old junior didn't want his classmates to know what had happened. He still couldn't accept it himself. But then, about a month ago, word got out, and Jose's story began to touch friends and teachers, including people he didn't even know.
"It was very devastating," classmate Benjamin Martinez said Tuesday in Jennie Jackson's marine biology class, a class Jose should have been in.
"Jose is probably one of the most humble, hard-working, reliable students I have ever known," says Jackson.
When students learned that Jose was at a rehab hospital and confined to a wheelchair, and that he might not be able to return to the second-story Hollywood walk-up apartment he shares with three siblings and his single mother, they wanted to help. Jackson recalls a ninth-grader producing a cup and suggesting that it be passed around the class. Soon, it was filled with small change and some paper, as well, including a $20 bill.
Down on the second floor, French teacher Marguerite Sampah Stewart passed a hat too. And she and her students decided to sell croissants for Jose. Stewart bought them at Sweet Temptations bakery, where pastry chef Yvan Valentin gave her a big break on the price. Students have now sold nearly 1,000 croissants.
The owner of Chick-fil-A in Hollywood, meanwhile, heard about Jose from some of his 15 employees who attend Fairfax High.
"I'm extremely grateful for what the kids do for me in my business," said Jeremiah Cillpam, who never met Jose, but was determined to help. He's been meeting with a student leadership group from Fairfax and is planning a fundraiser. For an entire day, yet to be announced, a chunk of the sales will benefit Jose's family, and Cillpam is hoping to raise $5,000.
"It's a community," said Fairfax development director Joyce Kleifield, whose son was in Jose's marine biology class.
Kleifield said she's been touched but not surprised at the way students have responded. These are good kids, she told me. Give them a safe environment and inspired teachers, "and anything can happen."
They've sold hats and T-shirts, as well as buttons expressing love and support for Jose in English, Korean, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese and French. Steve Ranjel, another classmate of Jose's, is preparing a webcast on the Fairfax news station, in which he will make a pitch for the buttons.
Claudia Solis, a junior, went to her place of worship, Holy Spirit Catholic Church, told Jose's story and passed an envelope. She brought it back to school stuffed with $418.
The fundraising has topped $6,000 so far, and there's a sense at Fairfax that it's only the beginning. Jose's mother has had to take leave from her job, and the family faces some major expenses, including relocating to a suitable, wheelchair-accessible place for Jose.
Jose, meanwhile, has been at Rancho Los Amigos Rehabilitation Hospital in Downey, and last week, he found the courage to do an extremely difficult thing. At the urging of the Rancho staff, including therapists Amy Salinas and Shayna Newall, he visited Fairfax.
Jose didn't stay long, though, and he explained why Tuesday afternoon when I drove out to Rancho Los Amigos to meet him.
"I didn't want them to see me," he said of his fellow students. He can't quite imagine returning to school in a wheelchair. Everything seems overwhelming right now, and college seems like an impossible dream.
His mother, Maria Reynoso, said she wonders if his back pain and blood clot were related to a fall Jose took as a youngster, hitting his head on a rock. She said the medical staff has told her they can't say yet whether Jose will recover the use of his arms and legs.
Reynoso isn't sure when she'll be able to go back to her job as a caretaker at an elder-care center to help her son through this, and Jose's brother, Delfino, told me he's working three jobs right now to keep the family's bills paid.
Jose controls his wheelchair by maneuvering a knob with his mouth. He's being trained to use an iPad, and he's begun painting, controlling the brush with his mouth.
His spirits, though low, are much improved, said the therapists. And Jose said the support from Fairfax has been deeply appreciated.
"We Love Jose," says the sign in the window of his hospital room, and it's signed by students.
When he wakes up each day, Jose said, what keeps him going is this wish:
"One day, to move my hands."
(Checks for Jose's family can be made out to Maria Reynoso and sent in care of Jennie Jackson, Fairfax High School, 7850 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA, 90046).