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Loss of mom, grandmom double tragedy for 8 kids

Patricia Valenzuela died during heart surgery almost five years ago and left behind eight children for her mother, Hortencia Gonzales, to raise.

Gonzales struggled being a second mom, but the devoted grandmother kept the large family together under one roof.

But tragedy revisited the family Sept. 13 when Gonzales, 53, died from heart failure because of complications from an infection she developed in July.

For the second time in their lives, the children, ages 6 to 16, have been orphaned. Their aunts are stepping in to fill Gonzales' role as caregiver.

"She sacrificed a lot to help her grandchildren and keep them together," said aunt Maria Muñoz in Spanish. "I just want the kids to know that they have not been left alone. We are here for them."

Muñoz, 37, hopes to have eight of her sister's nine children live with her. The youngest of the nine, 4-year-old Jasmin Casillas, has lived with her father since Valenzuela died.

In November 2003, Valenzuela suffered a heart attack while giving birth to Jasmin. Though her family knew at the time Valen- zuela had an enlarged heart, not many of them knew her condition was aggravated by the use of crack cocaine.

Less than a month later, Valenzuela was arrested on charges of child abandonment and being under the influence of drugs after neighbors spotted the children wandering in a nearby park, according to her family.

The children had to abandon their trailer home after the Ceres Fire Department condemned it as unsafe, a Las Casitas trailer park manager said at the time.

After three days in jail, Valenzuela suffered heart complications and was rushed to Emanuel Medical Center in Turlock, where the 26-year-old mother died on the operating table.

That's when the grandmother stepped in, but her life with these children did not have an easy start.

Two bedrooms, 15 people

Gonzales decided to take the children into her tiny south Modesto house, where she and her then-husband, Jesse, lived with her mother, her three daughters, and one other grandchild. The two-bedroom home would house 15 people.

Gonzales said at the time the family would rely on a monthly income of $2,015 from one welfare check and two disability checks.

Neither Gonzales nor her husband could work. Gonzales, a former housekeeper, had chronic diabetes and hepatitis.

Jesse, a former construction worker, cannot feel or move several fingers on his right hand, which he injured in an accident. The couple divorced about two years ago.

Hortencia Gonzales could not afford the $5,000 funeral expense for Valenzuela. She and the children canvassed neighborhoods to raise money and collected about $1,000.

Friends and family helped with other needs such as food and a few Christmas gifts.

After learning about the family's need, Lakewood Memorial Park and Funeral Home reduced the funeral and burial costs from $5,000 to about $3,000.

A Santa Rosa couple, who wanted to remain anonymous, bought a four-bedroom, two- story house, listed at $265,000, for the family to live in. The house in Ceres was a few blocks from Walter White Elementary School, which several of the older children attended.

The community rallied to help the children and their grandmother, and the family had a future filled with hope.

The daily trials of raising eight children was never easy for Gonzales, said her granddaughter Yesenia Gonzales. She is a cousin of Valenzuela's children and Muñoz's daughter.

"Sometimes she would say, 'I'm just really going crazy,' " said Yesenia Gonzales, 22, who would stay with her grandmother from time to time. "I would help her out with the kids."

Even when times were tough, though, Gonzales remained devoted to her grandchildren. Her family said singing lifted her spirits. She was always singing mariachi music around the house and took singing lessons to improve.

Her marriage to Jesse had ended, and her 73-year-old mother, Maria Martinez, moved out. Gonzales was alone with the eight children in the donated house. She didn't pay rent, only utilities.

But times got tougher in May, when the owner of the house asked Gonzales and her grandchildren to leave because the home was not being maintained, Yesenia Gonzales said.

The family moved into a south Modesto rental home on El Paso Avenue, just east of Crows Landing Road.

Cut toe becomes trouble

It got worse in July when Gonzales cut her toe on a piece of glass that became lodged in her foot, her family said. Instead of seeing a doctor immediately, Gonzales waited until the end of the month before she sought treatment and the piece of glass was removed.

But she became ill and was admitted to a hospital Aug. 15. Doctors told her the wound had caused a serious infection in her foot and it had to be amputated at the ankle. Her family said Gonzales refused and left the hospital.

The infection got worse. Yesenia Gonzales said she would see her grandmother lying in bed all the time. About two weeks after her first hospital visit, Gonzales returned to the hospital, but it was too late.

Gangrene had developed and spread throughout her body, including her heart, her family said. Her chronic diabetes made matters worse.

Soon afterward, she suffered a stroke while at the hospital and remained unconscious until the morning she died.

Once again, the children lost their matriarch. Once again, the children had to abandon their home and move in with a new relative. Once again, the children had to help raise money to pay for funeral expenses.

Gonzales' family has to raise $6,000 for the funeral. Muñoz has walked around her neighborhood with a can asking for donations and has collected about $300, she said.

On Saturday, the family washed cars in the parking lot of the El Paraiso nightclub in the 1500 block of Crows Landing Road. They raised about $250. The family will be there again today washing cars from 8 a.m. to about noon.

Gonzales' funeral is scheduled for Sept. 29 at Lakewood Memorial Park in Hughson to give the family enough time to raise money.

More difficulty ahead

Muñoz wants to keep the children together. One of her sisters has offered to take in two of the children, but the family has not made a final decision.

Yesenia Gonzales said the fathers of the eight children have not made any efforts to support the children in five years.

For now, the children sleep on couches and share beds in Muñoz's three-bedroom house in west Modesto. Muñoz and her husband live with her 16-year-old daughter, 12-year-old son and 5-year-old son.

"I know I have something very difficult ahead of me, but I have to do it," Muñoz said about their suddenly cramped living arrangements.

The children are still reeling from the traumatic loss of their grandmother. Yesenia Gonzales said they don't seem to talk much about her death, but that's their way of coping.

"They're not trying to get too close to anyone," she said about the children. "They're off in their own little world."

The oldest of the children, 16-year-old Jonathan Valenzuela, is staying at the rental house on El Paso Avenue until the end of the month before the family has to move out their belongings.

Yesenia Gonzales said her cousin Jonathan is struggling the most with his grandmother's death.

"Right now, he just wants to be by himself," she said.

When asked about their grandmother, the rest of the children struggled to speak about their time together. It's too soon for them. It's too hurtful to think about her only to be reminded that, like their mother, their grandmother is now gone.

"She loved us," said 12-year-old Angelica Lopez with tears in her eyes as her sisters wept next to her. "We love her, and we miss her."

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or 578-2394.

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