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Frank Gray

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15-year triumph comes to end

Najera

About 15 years ago, a group of Noble County elementary, middle and high school students launched an effort that anyone with any sense should have known was doomed to fail.

The group was known as Noble County PRIDE, an organization designed to keep kids off drugs. Every week, a handful of the 320 members would drop by the Noble House, a homeless shelter in Albion, and show the children there how to use computers, or help them with homework, or play games with them.

The routine continued for months, and no one seemed to take notice of one child who lived in the shelter with his mother and two brothers, a youngster, small for his age, named Carlos Najera.

Then, one day, Carlos wasn’t there any more. Students learned he was in the hospital. He was sick, very sick.

He had been born with only one kidney, and it was undeveloped. So Carlos didn’t grow at the normal rate, and it was just a matter of time, not much time, before the kidney failed. That would be the end.

There are sometimes options in cases like that. There are kidney transplants. But Carlos wasn’t a good candidate. He was poor, uninsured, with no father, an illegal immigrant, though no one seemed to care, living an unstable life in a homeless shelter with a mother who had fled an abusive boyfriend and who was no longer able to work because she had to care for her son almost constantly.

The students, though, instead of lamenting the sad tale, decided to organize and raise enough money to pay for a kidney transplant for Carlos. It would cost $100,000.

Everyone knows that a bunch of elementary and high school kids in a little town of less than 2,500 couldn’t possibly raise that much, but no one told them that.

So they went at it, begging, raising, mooching, cajoling money out of people any way they could think of. They got people to donate hogs and then got someone to cook them for free.

Within six months, they were nearly halfway to their goal when an anonymous donor agreed to kick in $50,000 if they raised the first $50,000.

By April 1999 they had actually raised the $100,000 needed at the time, and by that November, Carlos had received the impossible, a new kidney.

So sometimes stories have a happy ending.

Carlos, who was about 11 when he got the new kidney, went on to graduate from high school. He found work. He and his mother and brothers left the shelter, found a trailer and eventually found a house in Ligonier where they all lived together.

But a few years ago Carlos’ kidney started to fail. He ended up on dialysis again.

Last Wednesday, at 26, 15 years after students mounted their campaign, Carlos died.

The students who helped raise the money for his transplant are grown now, all well out of high school, out of college and many doubtless well on their way in careers.

Perhaps they can take some consolation in knowing that as students, some as young as 10, they helped give an extra 15 years of life to the kid they met at the homeless shelter.

And maybe they’ll find it fitting that Carlos, in death, became a tissue donor.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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