School community pulls together for ill sixth-grader

The story of James Lee, a sixth-grade student at St. James’ Episcopal School in Koreatown, isn’t an easy one to write.

Three years ago, James’ mother died of cancer. And before the loss could settle in, his father’s clothing sales company lost a major retail contract, and the business went under.

Then in January, James complained of a headache and seemed disoriented at school. He ended up at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, and the diagnosis was devastating.

The bright, shy young boy — who had hoped to get into Harvard-Westlake School this fall — had a malignant, inoperable brain stem tumor. It’s a type that often proves fatal within a year.

And that wasn’t all the bad news he had to endure. While James was undergoing radiation and chemotherapy at Children’s, he and his father, stepmother and stepsister were evicted from their Koreatown condo because of financial difficulties.

“The stepmother called and said she was on the street with James,” said Father Aidan Koh, the chaplain at St. James’.

St. James’ is a small school that has the feel of a large family, and as word of James’ situation spread, students, faculty and parents were determined to help. When I visited Deborah David, head of school, on Monday, she brought students into her office to tell me about their efforts to support James and his family.

The first-grade team of Julianne Savagian, Cassidy Seitz and Stella Kazanjian decided to make cookies and sell them outside Julianne’s house in Hancock Park. The girls baked the cookies themselves at Julianne’s house and found buyers — many of them from the St. James’ family — who plunked down as much as $100 for a cookie or two. All that baking netted roughly $2,500.

“It hit us hard,” sixth-grader Gabriel Peter said of his classmate’s illness. “He seemed so innocent.”

Gabriel and his brother Elias, a third-grader at the school, went out to Larchmont Boulevard and set up a donation stand. The boys handed out fliers trumpeting a “Jump for James fundraiser” that was being organized by P.E. teachers Tamera Brown and Nick Di Pasquale.

So what was Gabriel’s pitch on Larchmont?

“I said, ‘How would you like to sponsor us for a kid in our class who has brain cancer? One guy said I should first say, ‘Hi, how are you?’”

Good advice. Gabriel and Elias took it — and raised $1,513.84.

Andy Si, another classmate of James’, emailed every employee in his father’s tech company, explaining James’ predicament. They donated hundreds of dollars, and Andy also wrote a letter of support to James. Although they’re both bilingual, Andy wrote the letter in Korean, explaining that he’s better able to express emotions in his native language.

“We keep running in life, and don’t know when we’re going to die,” said Andy, who told me his advice to James was “to find the courage to do what he wants to do with his life” in the time he has left.

Jump for James, held last week in the St. James’ yard, was a music-driven celebration of James and the student efforts to help him out. School staff had expected to raise a few thousand dollars, but students lined up so many sponsors for their hula-hooping, jump-roping and other acrobatics, the register hit $35,000. James, who watched the activities from a distance, took center stage near the end to accept a quilt made by sixth-graders with the help of kindergarten teacher Nancy Vermette.

Meanwhile, word of James’ story found its way to Alvin Kang, president of BBCN Bank. Kristy Yun, one of his human resource managers, suggested sending an email to all the bank’s employees asking if they’d like to help by writing a check or donating vacation time.

Not one of them knew James, but it didn’t matter. More than 100 bank employees chipped in, with 80% of them cashing in vacation time. Paul Choi, a marketing officer, gave up a day of vacation pay. Kang himself, who said the story “just grabbed your heart,” gave up a week’s vacation pay and so did Mark Lee, his chief credit officer.

“I lost a child to sudden infant death syndrome about 20 years ago,” Lee said. “If I can help this kid be a little more comfortable, it’s worth it.”

In the first tally, bank employees had donated $19,000. But when all the pledges were in, Kang visited the school. He was carrying a check for $44,306.

But for all the generosity James has inspired, his family’s financial challenges remain. James’ father has gone to Korea temporarily in search of work, but a job prospect there has fallen through.

At the school, staff and parents became concerned that students — especially the younger ones — were so enthusiastic about their fundraising efforts that they needed to be reminded that James’ condition remains extremely grave.

“We were afraid kids thought that if they raised enough money, they could save James’ life,” said Olivia Kazanjian, who had to sit daughter Stella down and talk to her about both the importance — and the limitations — of good deeds.

Harvard-Westlake School, by the way, has accepted James’ application and delivered the news to him in person. The reason he wants to go there, James told me Monday, is to make his father proud. He also said he appreciates the support from students and others.

“I felt happy that they were doing this for me,” he said of last week’s Jump for James.

“I just pray for God to help me get better.”

When I asked what he missed most about school, James answered with one word.


(If you’d like to make a donation, checks should be made payable to St. James’ Episcopal School. Please write “For James Lee” on the check. Send to St. James’ Episcopal School, 625 S. St. Andrews Place, Los Angeles, CA 90005.)