Mesa community helps farmworker battle cancer

This Columbia Basin farming community is not about to let one of its own slip through society's cracks, especially when he is at his most vulnerable.

Federico Alvarado is battling Hodgkin's lymphoma, a blood cancer that has kept him out of work for several months as he has been treated with chemotherapy. Like many farmworkers, Alvarado does not have health insurance, and his expenses have been stacking up. Getting by with no income has depleted his meager savings.

"He's a great person," said Brad Curtis, who runs Curtis Land & Livestock, where Alvarado, 45, has worked since coming to the United States from Mexico in the 1980s.

Thursday evening, cold and fog couldn't keep away more than 200 folks in this farming town of fewer than 500. Beginning around 5 p.m., they began streaming into Mesa Elementary School where, for $10, they could load up their plates with tri-tip, refried beans, rice, fresh tortillas and cookies for a hearty meal in the school gymnasium.

It felt like a family reunion, with young children chasing each other and parents catching up on gossip and news in a mixture of English and Spanish.

About an hour into the dinner, Alvarado arrived. His hair fell out soon after chemo treatments began this fall, so he protected his head from the 25-degree chill with a stocking cap. His most recent treatment was Monday at Kennewick General Hospital, and he was so worn out, his daughter Patricia wasn't sure if he would be able to put in an appearance.

Grateful and taken aback by the outpouring of support, he slowly made his way around the room, shaking hands with as many folks as he could and posing for photos.

"This community sticks together," Curtis said as he sliced meat that he donated for the event. "So many friends do all of this for free. The wives make the salads, and the husbands usually sit around the barbecue and cook tri-tip and ribs. This is a really great community."

Gregg Taylor, North Franklin School District superintendent, said Alvarado has been an active parent, serving on the Parent Advisory Council for several years and helping to raise money for school district projects. Now, Taylor said, the tightly knit community is able to help Alvarado and his family during their time of need.

In addition to the food, more than a dozen items were donated for a silent auction -- everything from gourmet food baskets to a new picnic table.

By the end of the evening, the community had raised almost $4,800, a huge amount for a family living on the margins and battling an insidious disease.

Alvarado's next chemo is a week before Christmas. Soon after, he will receive a CT scan so his doctors can assess how the treatments are working. If they aren't, they will try a new course, perhaps a bone marrow transplant.

Fortunately, state health insurance now is covering his medical bills. In the fall, it appeared Alvarado, a U.S. citizen and father of six, had fallen into a bureaucratic abyss, as his case had stalled in Olympia.

But not long after the Herald wrote about his plight in late October, his paperwork arrived, clearing the way for the medical treatment he needed.

And now his town is helping with living expenses. For perhaps the first time since the cancer was diagnosed in August, his family and friends could feel despair turning into hope.

"We're doing what we can," Curtis said. "The community is helping out a lot. Now we just keep hoping and praying things turn out."

Related stories from Tri-City Herald