Eye on the sparrow

It’s about the worst news any parent could get—having a young child diagnosed with a rare, malignant form of cancer. Yet that’s what happened last summer when Malibu Middle School art teacher Thomas Hacker and his wife, Malibu High School French teacher Rebecca Owens, were told their two-year-old son Benjamin would need to have a kidney removed after the discovery of a large tumor.

“Looking at the first ultrasound scans was nerve-wracking because the tumor had consumed almost his entire left kidney,” Hacker wrote in an e-mail. 

A surgeon at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles removed the tumor and the kidney, but unfortunately, biopsies performed during the surgery confirmed a highly malignant form of cancer.


“[The doctors] starting talking [survival] percentages and they weren’t good,” Hacker wrote. “When we learned he was stage four…it sent us reeling.”

About the same time, MHS student Gabriel Rapoport, a junior, was home one night watching “Extreme Makeover – Home Edition” on TV—a weekly reality show that does home improvements for families in need. The episode featured a family with a “Sparrow Kid” who had been adopted by a school “Sparrow Club,” a new kind of school club where students raise money for the family of a sick child through community service. 

Rapoport had recently attended a HOBY Leadership Academy seminar, which emphasized volunteerism and community service. After learning about Sparrow Clubs USA on TV, he wanted to start one at MHS. When he received a letter from teacher Thomas Hacker at the beginning of the school year announcing he wouldn’t coach tennis because of his sick toddler, Rapoport knew which child the aspiring club could adopt. 

“When I first learned about Sparrow Clubs, I was touched by the fact that someone like myself could actually do something to make a difference for someone who’s going through something so awful and tragic,” Rapoport wrote in an e-mail. “To have the opportunity to do something for this family and Ben is incredibly meaningful to me.” 

Rapoport has been busy getting the club started, which meant coordinating with MHS Principal Jerry Block and Community Ser vice Coordinator Nina Lauerman, the Hacker/Owens family and the Sparrow Clubs USA nonprofit organization, which is based in Oregon. 

All the groundwork and paperwork is now finished, and a local sponsor has come forward. Local resident Jerry Perenchio, the former chair and CEO of Univision and head of the Malibu Bay Co., stepped up last week to donate the required $4,060 for a new club to form. 

Funds will be donated to the family as students turn in their community service vouchers—$10 for every hour worked. Principal Block also agreed to hold a lunch-time school assembly in the near future to kick off the program. 

“I am so touched by the giving and compassionate nature of our students, as exemplified by Gabriel,” Principal Block wrote in an e-mail. 

In the meantime, little Ben has gone through four rounds of aggressive chemotherapy, which appeared to get rid of the cancer. Despite that good news, there was still a final phase of treatment planned that would have involved additional rounds of high-dose chemotherapy coupled with stem cell therapy to help mitigate the side effects. 

“We knew if he could make it to stem cell therapy, he would live,” wrote Hacker. But, “Last week we learned Ben can no longer do the stem cell therapy and once again this threw all of our cards up in the air.” 

The child is back in the hospital undergoing blood plasma treatments several hours a day for a condition related to the side effects of chemotherapy. Once the condition is treated, which could take several weeks, doctors will re-evaluate his fitness for further chemotherapy and radiation. 

Hacker and Owens are taking turns at not working in order to be with their son. Owens took a leave of absence from teaching the first semester of school, and Hacker plans to take off the second semester. 

“His treatment is still far from over,” Hacker wrote. “I’m so proud of him for staying strong and happy through it all. It’s the saddest thing, because the world of hospitals and doctors is now all he knows.” 

Anyone interested in donating or sponsoring additional funds for the Sparrow Club can contact Gabriel Rapoport at gabrielrapoport@gmail.com. Any business or individual interested in donating food for the lunchtime assembly or items to the family can contact Romy Rapoport at 310.483.3987. 

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