By Sanne Specht
Students at Rogue Valley Adventist Academy line up before the computer screen for a chance to wave and offer their well wishes to the newest member of the Southern Oregon Sparrow Club.
Two-year-old Mateo Lopez, one of the most medically fragile children in the Rogue Valley, has melted the hearts of Jackson County residents since his story ran in the Mail Tribune around Thanksgiving. At Tuesday's assembly at the small Medford school, Mateo received more support to help him overcome his life-threatening conditions.
"I got choked up when I read the story," says Matt Sampson, regional director of the program for the past seven years. "He's had to fight for his life since the day he was born."
Mateo was born at Rogue Valley Medical Center in January 2010, two months ahead of his due date. He spent his first eight weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit and the past two years in and out of hospitals, enduring surgeries related to his dwarfism, surviving potentially deadly seizures and fighting the ongoing and life-threatening fallout of his medical challenges. He was having between 15 and 25 seizures a day.
"He'd turn blue and stop breathing. It was really scary," Sampson says.
Mateo's lungs were severely damaged by pneumonia he contracted following one of his surgeries. His whole body started shutting down -- his heart, lungs, kidneys, Sampson explains to the students.
Mateo survived. But he has special feeding and tracheotomy tubes, Sampson says, adding Mateo has to be on ventilators and use oxygen tanks, suction pumps and a host of other medical equipment.
"This is one of the most critical cases," Sampson says.
Children with serious medical needs are taken in as Sparrows at area schools, where monetary pledges by area businesses are paid off by students performing community service hours. Students have pledged to work 256 hours of community service over the next year in exchange for a $2,560 check the Medford law firm of Hornecker, Cowling, Hassen & Heysell advanced the Lopez family for Mateo's needs, he says.
"This is the day you can make a difference," Sampson tells the students, urging them to rake a neighbor's leaves, collect food for the hungry or coats for the cold to earn their Sparrow vouchers for time donated.
"And on the back I want you to write what helping Mateo has meant to me,' " he says.
The little boy with the bright blue eyes gazes back in the screen from the arms of his mother, Whitney. They are appearing via Skype because Mateo has to be transported by land or air ambulances to all of his appointments, Sampson says.
But Mateo's father, Dominic, and 3-year-old brother, Kyenne, are at the school and soaking in the students' enthusiasm.
"We really, really appreciate it," Dominic says.
Sampson says the Lopezes need a vehicle large enough to transport Mateo and all his medical equipment -- ventilator, humidifier, suction machine, oxygen tanks, feeding pumps, oxygen and heart monitors and his backup battery packs. They also need a generator and help with medical bills, he says.
Whitney says that she, Dominic, Kyenne and Mateo are all grateful for the support they have received from community members as a result of the Thanksgiving story. From a Christmas tree donated by another little boy named Mateo Lopez, to scholarships for Kyenne to get some schooling and playtime, to cash donations toward a van, Whitney says she has been overwhelmed by the generosity.
"The community has just been so awesome," Whitney says, adding Lithia Honda and In and Out Gardens each donated $500 toward Mateo's medical needs in their "Love Bucket" campaign.
"We've received about $5,000 so far," she says.
Mateo has been hospitalized all but seven of his 24-month-long life. And he was back in the hospital in December for a respiratory infection, she says.
"That's so sad," says Claudia Velasco, a 15-year-old freshman who signed on to perform community service to help Mateo, along with her two friends, Savannah Shults, 15, and Dominique Silva, 14.
"He's so little and he's had to go through all this," Claudia says.
Sampson says the children's efforts not only will support the Lopezes financially, it will help the family emotionally.
"That money will come and go," Sampson says. "But you know what will never go away? That feeling that you are not alone."
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.