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Spree of a Lifetime : Young Cancer Patients Wrap Up a Magic Week

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Christmas music chimed through the Glendale Galleria. Santa Claus jounced toddlers on his knee. And seven children with cancer, four of them from Mexico and three from Los Angeles, were on a shopping spree arranged by Los Angeles police officers.

“How about some of these?” Officer Gilbert Escontrias asked Mike Dighero, holding up a pair of jeans for the frail, 6-year-old Boyle Heights boy.

The little boy looked less than thrilled--then he caught sight of something else.

“El nino Bart Simpson!” he shouted, ecstatic.

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By the time he left the mall, Mike sported a Bart Simpson T-shirt and warm-ups, a Mickey Mouse hat and a pair of Reeboks. The rest of the group walked out with packages full of Barbie dolls, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Air Jordans and a Nintendo game.

Advertising had brought the glamour of brand names into East Los Angeles housing projects and even into dirt-floored homes in Mexico, where the onetime expense of a black and white television yields years of entertainment. But until Friday, for these seven families, the money to buy such products had remained out of reach.

On Friday, children who had never seen a department store, and in two cases, parents who had never shopped anywhere but public markets in a town square, set out for the mall. Each family had a mission to spend more than $250, which was raised by the Hollenbeck community relations unit of the Los Angeles Police Department. The shopping spree was the climax of a five-day trip to Los Angeles that included outings to Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, and, for one 15-year-old boy, an artificial leg.

Such sprees are conceived as once-in-a-lifetime voyages into happy oblivion, a magical few hours where poverty and illness are left behind. On Friday, in fact, children seemed to forget the chemotherapy treatments and all the painful months in hospitals. They were no longer kids with cancer; they were kids at Christmas.

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Separated from their parents for part of the spree on the assumption that they would feel freer to buy what they really wanted without supervision, they asked excitedly for things whose names they had heard on TV, or from friends. Meanwhile, their parents--a mom or dad accompanied each child on the trip--were each given $100 to spend on themselves and their families back home.

The children started out in a shoe store, where the six boys each asked for favorite brands, in some cases according to the stars (Michaels Jackson and Jordan) who had endorsed them. Raudel Gonzalez of Jalisco, Mexico, who lost one leg to cancer last June, couldn’t stop smiling as he explained to the clerk that he was about to get another foot for the Nike that was left in the shoe box.

The only girl, Rocio Romero, 13, spurned “boys’ shoes,” and chose a pair of low-slung black boots. Rocio, who comes from a small town outside Guadalajara, said all her family shopping is done in the public market in her small town. She gazed longingly at a $69 confection of pink nylon lace, but chose a more practical outfit, barrettes for her older sisters, and a neon T-shirt that said “California” across the chest.

During this trip, children, who had never met one another and had little in common except those things they prefer to forget, turned into a kind of extended family. One frail 10-year-old, Salvador Gudino, who did not speak when he arrived, learned to use a telephone at the motel where they were staying, and kept ringing his new friends just to say hi. His mother, Juana Torres, 40, who described herself as a peasant with 10 children, went around saluting police officers with a “high five.”

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In the Glendale Galleria, cancer proved easier to forget than poverty.

As the boys walked through the aisles of a toy store, Officer Maria Martinez suggested that they avoid toy cars with batteries. The children understood instantly; batteries wore out and at home there would be no money for more.

The three fathers, left alone to shop with their $100 bills, chose gifts for their wives and outfits for the children left at home.

The mothers, however, walked through J.C. Penney almost without touching anything. They glanced at one another over the counters full of holiday trinkets and assorted perfumes. They wended their way past ties for Dad and sequinned tops for New Year’s Eve.

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Still, they bought nothing.

Torres and Elisa Romero, Rocio’s mother, each have nine other children at home. Mike’s mother, who lives in a housing project in Boyle Heights, has four other children. Would it be possible, they asked politely, to take the cash and spend it elsewhere? The store the police officers had chosen for its low prices was, they said, for “monied” people.

On the way out, Romero, in one impulsive moment, picked up a small box of gift-wrapped perfumed soaps for $7. Guilt flashed across her face. But, after the tough going, even the toughened, a mother with the 10 mouths to feed, wanted to go shopping. Just this once.

She smiled shyly at her companions. Then she handed the clerk her single, crisp $100 bill.

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