By Diana L. Chapman
After three years of visiting her 9-year-old granddaughter at her grave, Mary Lou Martinez thought both of them deserved a better deal. They should be celebrating Devin Hamilton's life with the punctuations of joy she left in people's hearts.
Not in silence. Or in somberness.
That's when it hit. It seemed to Martinez that so many children -- who live in San Pedro tucked along the highly industrialized port of Los Angeles -- had their lives cut short by varying kinds of cancer and that people were forgetting them much too soon. And when they did remember them it was sadness. Not with joy.
She wants to build a way for the community to celebrate those children, she said, and, with the backing of Los Angeles Councilman Joe Buscaino's office, she needs other community members to help her design the "how."
"I just didn't want to visit Devin in the cemetery for the rest of my life," said Martinez, who decorates the grave each holiday. "I just have this vision of some place near the ocean, a great place with a plaque, a place to meet. The sad part is that they died. But the beautiful part is that they lived. And that they were great kids who were loved and are missed."
Diagnosed with leukemia in Aug. 2009, Devin lived less than a year, dying Jan. 26 2010. One of her classmates at Crestwood Elementary School, Leo Russo, died in
September the same year from hodgkins mature b cell lymphoma.
While many other children have succumbed to cancer related illnesses here, Martinez believes practically everybody in the tight-knit community of San Pedro-- many coming from generations of immigrant families-- knows a family who has lost a child to cancer. That has brought her on her mission today; she is asking for about six San Pedro residents to step forward and help her create her vision.
"I don't have anything set in stone," admits the grandmother, who babysat Devin daily until she enrolled in preschool age 2. "I want to get input from other people. I have to do it. It's been gnawing at me.
"I feel in my heart, it's going to happen and it will be great."
It was, in fact, the council office that suggested forming the group when she walked in to tell the staff what she wanted to create. The suggestion: form a six member committee to shape a memorial/festival to honor those children. While the idea is still unclear, the grandmother wants the commitee to help her mold what the memorial -- if in fact it should be a memorial at all -- should be.
Ideas that have been tossed around so far include s a tree of life that could represent the children, a symbolic statue possibly an angel, a yearly festival, a run, or a combination of all the things above -- or something else entirely different.
The only issue set in stone is that it should be for children, Martinez said.
Jacob Haik, district director for Buscaino's region which covers the entire harbor area and portions of South Los Angeles, said he will support Martinez in any way possible and that a representative from the council office will sit on the committee. Haik said he will attend the first meeting.
The subject, he said, is close to his heart as his 12-year-old daughter, Crystal is close friends with Blake Marquez. Blake lost her little sister, Paige, 4, to a brain tumor and her parents, Cheryl and Tim Marquez, built a foundation in Paige's memory to help other children afflicted with cancer -- and in particular with brain tumors. Haik also has four of his own children.
"I have talked to her (Martinez) two or three times," Haik said. "We will meet with her and support her absolutely. If I can be so bold, I suggested the committee because we are not event planners. But we can give support with events, tables, chairs. I do see the good it will bring."
Devin's mother, Lori Hamiliton, believes her mom is on the right track with her vision, and hopes the community will help out.
"I do of course think this is a great idea," said Devin's mother. "All the families who have children die are still going through their mourning and to feel we have a community that backs us and cares by supporting this idea is wonderful."
Over the years, studies have been done that children do suffer higher asthma
rates and that cancer rates overall are higher living near the Port of Los Angeles-Long Beach complex. A University of Southern California study reflects that ship emissions "contributed to the exacerbation of asthma," USC News reported in 2009.
In 2001, the National Resources Defense Council sued the city and the Port of Los Angeles using environmental laws claiming port emissions from diesel trains, ships and trucks caused premature deaths, cancer, asthma and upper respiratory illnesses via smog and particulate matters. The result was a $50 million mitigation fund to improve air quality at the world's largest port.
"Despite this victory, however, more work needs to be done," the NRDC reported on its website. "The cancer risk from diesel pollution is 60 percent higher from communities close to the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach than elsewhere in the region, and has steadily increased over the years, while pollution in other areas has dropped."
Since then, the Los Angeles port has undergone many mitigation measures, including its Clean Trucks Programs which works progressively to ban polluting trucks from entering the port.
While that battle goes on, Martinez believes San Pedro resident should embrace the lives that have been lost.
"San Pedro is a unique town, a lot like Catalina Island in the way it has familiarized its residents with one another, however, larger than the island," she said. "But as a small community, we know each other and we know the pain of loss, especially the loss of a child.
" How can we not come together as a community and remember and honor our sweet, sweet angels who left us all too soon?"