Rupesh Pendekanti would have been 17 this year, getting ready to graduate high school and checking out colleges. Perhaps he would have charmed his parents into helping him buy a car. Who knew what sport he would have excelled at, what music would loop on his playlist.
But Rupesh is forever 7-and-a-half years old. He died of leukemia in 1999, after battling the disease for five up-and-down years. His parents Rajesh and Nikki, and his older brother Ritesh, still live in the house in Chino Hills where he spent his healthy days. Rupesh also has a younger sister now, 6-year-old Nirati, who has so much of him in her, even though they never met.
In the years since her son’s death, Nikki Pendekanti, 42, never forgot the people at City of Hope in Duarte who accompanied them on their cancer journey.
“All the hospital people, they became our family, they were amazing,” she said. “After he left this world, it took me a while to go back, but then I did. I needed to do something.”
Pendekanti said when her son was going through chemotherapy and transplants and relapses, she believed he would recover.
“I always thought he would make it through and make things better for everyone else,” she said. “He was always so cheerful. He never fought to take medicine, he never complained when he had to take another MRI. But when he needed extra moral support, he would sing to himself.”
Rupesh sang “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” from the Disney movie “Toy Story.” And that is what his mother named the foundation that honors him. The nonprofit provides social activities for pediatric cancer patients at City of Hope in Duarte. Volunteers run board game nights, drum circles, painting classes and other simple experiences that hospital-bound kids normally can’t do.
A Friend in Me Foundation (www.afriendinme.org) is planning a prom for about 25 young patients, ages 14-23, and their guests, from 7 to 10 p.m. Friday, April 14, at City of Hope’s Cooper Auditorium, 1500 E. Duarte Road, Duarte.
Patients will get a pre-prom makeover before the festivities and will get to pick out outfits at a boutique on April 1. It is not lost on Nikki Pendekanti that all this prom rites is something her own Rupesh never had a chance to enjoy.
“The nurses were the ones who said the kids talk a lot about having their own prom,” she said. “It was such a coincidence to realize Rupesh would have attended his senior prom this year too. So I said we will make this happen.”
The foundation has lined up volunteer hairstylists and donors such as Subway in Upland, Papa John’s in Chino Hills, and Baskin Robbins in City of Industry to help with the festivities, but they need more help to make the anticipated 100 guests feel prom-worthy.
“What I learned when my son was going through treatment was that normal was not boring,” Pendekanti said. “Simple, normal things mattered so much to him. Normal is good. Kids crave for the birthday parties, going to school, playing at Chuck E Cheese’s, going trick or treating and playing sports. He loved something as simple as having someone quietly sit next to him and watch a movie with him.”
For this mother, Rupesh’s mother, who works in marketing and also teaches Bollywood and Indian classical dance, the work is consuming and draining. But it also keeps Rupesh close, the boy who sang himself a Disney song to help him be braver.
“You see those kids’ smiles, and it means the world,” Pendekanti said.
For more information, call (909) 525-8733 or visit A Friend In Me – Provide comfort and care for families of pediatric cancer patients.
Anissa V. Rivera Columnist “Mom’s the Word” Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Whittier Daily News Azusa Herald, Glendora Press and West Covina Highlander San Dimas/La Verne Highlander Southern California News Group 605 E. Huntington Drive, Suite 100, Monrovia CA 91016 (626) 301-1461
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