RESEDA – Because of Gabriel, an otherwise wilted garden now grows green. A woman changed her career and became a nurse to care for children. A family bought its first home. Because of 9-year-old Gabriel and his easy smile, other lives also got better. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORECoach Doc Rivers a “fan” from way back of Jazz’s Jordan Clarkson“He gave everybody a purpose, a new outlook,” Crystal Flowers said of her nephew, Gabriel Antonio Herrera Jr., who died earlier this month. Children die every day from disease or accidents, violence or carelessness, and Gabriel was born with congenital heart disease. But for his grandmother and aunt – who adopted and raised him – the boy’s death seemed painfully abrupt because he had defied the odds for so long. And always with a smile. Congenital heart disease affects more than 30,000 American children each year, and surgery can usually repair the deformities – but not for Gabriel, whose tiny heart was in his body backward. He also was developmentally disabled and was missing his right eye socket. Still, when he smiled, he looked like he was winking – as if to say, “Everything will be OK.” “His heart was so deformed,” said his grandmother, Jaye Flowers. “We got many calls from the hospital. They would say, `You’ve got to come down here now.”‘ He underwent his first surgery when he was 5 days old. He won’t make it, doctors said after giving Gabriel a tracheotomy to help him breathe easier. But Gabriel defied their predictions. Another operation followed when he was 5 years old. He won’t see his sixth birthday, doctors said after they installed a cardiac pacemaker. But Gabriel again defied their predictions. And the family even threw a birthday party for him. He won’t walk. He won’t talk. He won’t ride a bicycle or go to school, some doctors said. But Gabriel also defied all of those predictions. And he even did much more. At the Sven Lokrantz Special Education Center School in Reseda, he became the cafeteria and attendance monitor. He watered an otherwise wilted school garden religiously, until it grew green. “Everybody was amazed,” his grandmother said. “He learned to ride a bike. He learned some sign language and how to get his point across. He couldn’t stand to see people crying or sad. He would squeeze my hand as if to say, ‘Do something.”‘ Gabriel was born at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles in 1998. His mother was 16; his father, 18. The teen parents loved the child but were overwhelmed by his needs. So Jaye Flowers, his grandmother, adopted him – with help from her daughter. “My daughter, his aunt, worked nights, and I worked days,” Jaye Flowers said. “We rearranged our schedules. It just became part of life.” Nurses helped care for the boy always, and one of them, Dawn Day, said everyone who met Gabriel was touched in some way. “They called him a miracle child,” said Day, who helped care for the boy for six years. In time, in caring for Gabriel and watching him grow, his family grew right along with him. His Aunt Crystal changed her career path – from teacher to nurse. She earned her license and now works at Childrens Hospital to care for other children like Gabriel. “It’s what Gabriel would have wanted,” the 30-year-old woman said. “It was my true calling.” And his grandmother became stronger. “I had a very sick husband at the time,” she said. “My husband was disabled, but Gabriel kept me going. When my husband died, I overcame it because Gabriel needed me. “He was a motivating force for me. He was my life.” And then Gabriel’s grandmother and aunt decided that maybe they could buy a house – a more stable environment than they had found in rentals. They hoped for a house they saw in Reseda, where Gabriel could have his own room, large enough for his hospital bed. But the price was too high, and they thought they couldn’t afford it. However, the owners not only lowered the price, but also installed central air-conditioning and heating, after they met Gabriel, who chatted with them in his way, with a smile and a wink. As soon as the buyers moved in, photographs of Gabriel began lining shelves and glass cases. He’s in the snow. Riding a bike. In class photos. Wearing a Santa Claus hat. And always – always – smiling. “No matter what he was going through, he never cried,” Jaye Flowers said. Earlier this month, Gabriel underwent heart surgery for the third time. This time, his doctors said he had a 95 percent chance of survival. But they were wrong again. A leak in his heart valve could not be repaired. His body gave up, and he could not be resuscitated. Gabriel died peacefully, his grandmother said. His room, complete with photographs of animals and a box of toys, is as he left it. His friends and teachers at the Lokrantz School – who had sent him a giant get-well card, hoping he would come back – took up a collection to help fund his funeral, which the family is struggling to pay for. Gabriel was buried at Eternal Valley Memorial Park in Newhall just before Christmas. Pallbearers ranged in age from 21 to 67: men from all walks of life who came to know Gabriel. Mourners included doctors and nurses, social workers and teachers, neighbors and others. “Gabriel just had that kind of effect on people,” Jaye Flowers said. “He taught us all that you take what is given and do the best with it.”160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!