Grace: A young boy's life is cut short, and a community steps up to help his family -
Published Thursday, December 5, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 11:40 am
Grace: A young boy's life is cut short, and a community steps up to help his family

The call for help went out two days ago.

A 4-year-old boy named Javier had died. His family couldn't afford the funeral. Could someone help?

A pair of school social workers had sent their request Tuesday through an Internet group of local nonprofit agencies. By Wednesday afternoon, the funeral home lowered its prices and an anonymous donor, working through the Omaha Public Schools, agreed to pick up the remaining tab.

I had planned to write a column asking for help.

Instead, I can tell you about a community that didn't need a newspaper column to respond to a need. And I can tell you about a boy whose short life touched a lot of people.

Javier loved Lightning McQueen and Thomas the Tank Engine. His favorite meal was a Whopper Junior with extra cheese.

He had two big brothers who would play Wii with him, a mother who stayed home to take care of him and a father who worked all day in a warehouse job.

Every afternoon, he watched out the window of his family's one-bedroom apartment and, when his dad came in the door, he raced into his arms.

Javier, who was born in the United States, was a loving and beloved boy who remained on the radar of a school he had attended for just one year.

Like older brothers Jose and Martin, Javier went to preschool at Spring Lake, a south Omaha elementary school.

The early childhood education program at Spring Lake requires home visits, and the one-bedroom midtown apartment where the family lives was where Beth Benjamin-Alvarado, a family support worker, first met Javier.

He was 2, a blur of busy boy with cars and trains and black hair and a wide smile so bright it lit up the room.

Beth noticed that Javier slept on a toddler bed in the living room. The apartment was crowded but tidy.

A year later, Javier went to Spring Lake to learn his colors and numbers and shapes, how to line up and sit down and raise his hand, how to speak English. His older brothers by then were at Harrison Elementary.

Beth and co-worker Christen McAndrews grew attached to Javier. They had known the family. And this little boy with his bright eyes melted their hearts.

Yet in the spring, Javier became ill. He would chew food but not swallow it. A lump had grown under his tummy.

In June, he was in and out of the doctor's office. In July, the lump had grown into a bulge. Tests were performed, and Javier was diagnosed with hepatoblastoma, a rare liver cancer that affects children under age 5.

He would need a liver transplant but was too sick, at first, for that.

So Javier was hospitalized and underwent two rounds of chemotherapy.

Beth and Christen learned about this in August, when Javier's mother called to explain why her son would not be in school that fall. She asked if Spring Lake could hold his spot. She expected him to return.

Beth and Christen flew into action. They alerted the older boys' school. Harrison and Spring Lake raised money for the family. Beth and Christen visited Javier multiple times and arranged for a teacher to relieve his mother, who kept vigil at her son's bedside.

Javier was well enough to go home for a week in September.

Then he was back in the hospital. His black hair fell out. He was in a lot of pain. But his family was there for him. And so was his school.

In late October, Javier got a liver transplant and doctors removed a tumor. The boy was feeling much better. He was walking. He was talking.

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

Then came a third round of chemotherapy. On Saturday, he died at the Nebraska Medical Center.

Javier's folks went to Good Shepherd Funeral Home in South Omaha. The average adult funeral costs about $8,000.

A child's is a lot less, but still more than they could afford.

Javier's mother went home and started making little donation boxes to put inside businesses — then decided against it because she didn't want to ask. She and her husband worked out arrangements with Good Shepherd that included cremation and a two-hour visitation. Good Shepherd cut its prices.

Meanwhile, Christen sent a request into the Internet winds. Who could help defray funeral expenses for a child?

“I'm looking,” she wrote, “for anyone.”

By the end of the day Wednesday, a donor had stepped up to pay the tab.

Javier's parents declined an interview. But Beth told me about his bright smile. Christen told me about his love for Burger King.

And Susan Aguilera-Robles, his principal, told me about how when a child enters her building, he becomes part of a community.

“If something impacts our families, and if there's some support we can provide,” she said, “we try to do the best that we can.”

Contact the writer: Erin Grace    |   402-444-1136    |  

Erin is a columnist who tries to find interesting stories and get them into the paper. She's drawn to the idea that everyday life offers something extraordinary.

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