Miracles are nice but, truth be told, all Atticus Maldonado really wanted for Christmas was to be just another kid. 

Though it’s wonderful to know he’s been on so many people’s minds — and in their prayers — now all he wants is to blend back into the St. Pius X-St. Matthias Academy (PMA) community that helped to sustain him and his family for more than a year.

“I’m good with not being in the spotlight,” he said. “I’d like to be just a regular student again.”

In December 2022, Maldonado was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare and unusually aggressive form of cancer of the soft tissue. What was more, and worse, doctors told him that he was at stage 4 of the disease, a stage with about a 20% rate of survival.

The news of his illness spread quickly through the tightknit community of St. Pius X-St. Matthias in Downey. Masses were offered for his health. Friends made visits. Gifts were given. And an unknowable amount of time was spent thinking about him, his family, and what their struggle meant for the rest of us. 

In that time, he went from the sweet kid who loved baseball, Hot Wheels, and being an altar server, to a young man a whole lot of people were praying for, rooting for, and shedding tears for. His fight was theirs now. 

“There were moments when I was so angry about why this happened to my child, that I couldn’t pray,” his mother Evelyn Ochoa said. “And when I couldn’t pray for my own child, they did. This tribe that came together for us. I birthed him but, through that time, he was ours.”

Maldonado works during class. (Victor Alemán)

Anna Granados, in many ways the leader of that tribe, said that whenever the prayer group she helped found would turn their attention to Maldonado, “he became everybody’s kid.” Fitting since, before his diagnosis, Maldonado was as typical a Catholic kid as one could imagine — save for an exceptionally developed level of faith.

Evelyn admitted her son’s faith has “always been greater than mine,” and said that when informed of his cancer diagnosis “it felt like my whole world came tumbling down. All I had was questions, no answers. You know, why? Why my kid? He’s such a good kid.” And yet, moments after the diagnosis, she looked at her son to find him smiling, seemingly as unconcerned as if he’d just been diagnosed with a cold. Confused, she asked him how he was feeling to which he replied, “OK. God loves me.”

Around the same time, Granados had helped start the Parents in Prayer group at PMA, having felt a calling from the Blessed Virgin Mary to do so. 

“These times are hard for kids, for our families,” she said. “The rosary is a weapon for these times. Our youth is going through so much and we felt the need to help out, especially because we are so close here.”

With a student population that hovers around 500, PMA is the kind of place where students know not just one another, but one another’s families, too. Many arrive in packs from local parishes and have known one another since they were young children. Not only is Maldonado friends with Anna’s kids, but her husband, Jaime, coached him in sports at a local park. 

The prayer group would always dedicate the first mystery of the rosary to Maldonado. Anna, whose own mother was battling cancer, was always there, rain or shine, along with about 17 core members of the group. Sometimes they were joined by Evelyn, who found herself both strengthened and overwhelmed by the group’s devotion to her son and family.

“Many of these women were just people I’d said hello to and now they had become a force, a prayer force,” she said. “Praying for my son like it was their son.”

Maldonado with his mother, Evelyn Ochoa, and school chaplain Father Sam Ward at a special school Mass last September for Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. (Semaj Sanders)

None of which surprised PMA’s president, Christian De Larkin. Along with Parents in Prayer, a student campaign to send Maldonado direct messages got underway so that he knew he had not been forgotten. When it was mentioned how much he missed baseball, he was invited to sit in the dugout during a PMA game. When it was discovered that he was a serious collector of Hot Wheel cars, Christine Godoy, part of the prayer force and whose daughter Eva is a classmate of Maldonado, mentioned that her husband actually worked for Hot Wheels.

“So he put together this really cool collection of limited edition cars and we took it over to Atticus and when he saw what it was he almost burst into tears,” De Larkin said. “This is what you sign up for in Catholic education.

“You show how much you love each other, the whole person, including the spiritual, in tough times and good. That’s what this wonderful group of people did, created all these moments of grace as Atticus went through this crazy time.”

And during that crazy time, Atticus remained pretty much Atticus. Evelyn described him cracking jokes throughout the process, “making me laugh while he’s vomiting from the chemo,” her son sustained by a faith she said she wishes she could “bottle and drink from every day.”

His faith was such that he believed he could not only survive but serve through his illness. He volunteered to be part of a rhabdomyosarcoma study. Though his mom thought he had enough to worry about just getting better, the kid who wanted to be an altar server since he was 7, and had more recently taken to training younger servers at his home parish of St. Gertrude Church in Bell Gardens, said he was just following a divine plan for him.

“I felt maybe this was a sign from God, a way I could help others so that another kid wouldn’t have to go through what I did,” he said. “This can help a kid from experiencing the same speed bump I did, maybe save another kid’s life.”

Maldonado with friends at St. Pius X-St. Matthias Academy earlier this month. (Victor Alemán)

Evelyn showed up at the PMA Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony Dec. 1, 2023, to share the news that her son was now cancer-free and was now in the maintenance phase of treatment, which will continue for another six months. She thanked all those who did everything they could to make that happen. Some people started calling it the Miracle on Gardendale Street, the street the school is located on.

Maldonado, of course, was just happy it meant that he could go back to school. He did so for the first time in a long while on Jan. 8, as PMA went back after Christmas break. He said he was a little nervous about being able to keep up with school and homework, but by the end of the day felt like he was back in the flow of things.

“He arrived in uniform wearing a beanie to cover his head and joined us for our morning assembly,” De Larkin said. “There he sat among his peers in the junior section of the gym and began his first day of school as a normal student. It was a beautiful sight to see.”

Maldonado agreed it was nice. He said he thought there might be a lot of questions from classmates about what he’d gone through, but none ever came.

 “No one really asked me. It was pretty good to not talk about it.”

So perhaps he can find his way back to normal sooner than later, though always with a faith his mother calls “out of this world,” a faith that combines the innocence of a child with the strength of a survivor.

“I guess I just feel like if something bad happens, I’m going to get through it,” he said. “It’s just a speed bump. Me and God, I feel like we have a pretty good connection.”