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San Antonio family turns tragedy into blessing for hundreds of Chicago families

Dylan Pantoja’s family donated lifts, special wheelchairs and other medical equipment to ASI Chicago, which will distribute it to families in need.

Itza Pantoja, in pink, hugs Karina Aguilar at ASI Chicago in Logan Square where the Pantoja family donated their son Dylan’s medical equipment to Felipe Aguilar, who has cerebral palsy.
Itza Pantoja, in pink, hugs Karina Aguilar at ASI Chicago in Logan Square where the Pantoja family donated their son Dylan’s medical equipment to Felipe Aguilar, who has cerebral palsy.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Every year, the Pantoja family would celebrate their son and brother Dylan’s birthday by going out to the community park they frequented in San Antonio and hand out baked goods, like cookies and cupcakes, to people they passed — many of whom were strangers.

It was one of the things Itza Pantoja said her son Dylan, who was born with hydrocephalus, or excessive fluid in the brain, among other life-threatening conditions, looked forward to most on his big day.

“I was always trying to teach my kids, including Dylan, that it’s always good to help others,” Pantoja said. “Sometimes giving others a cookie or a cupcake brings a smile to someone, and they might need that one smile to make their day or their life better.”

Dylan, who was expected to live only 6 months, was 16 when he died in 2019. His family celebrated what would’ve been his 18th birthday Tuesday in a big way, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of medical equipment and supplies to ASI Chicago, an organization that provides various home care services for those in need and works to bridge the health care equity gap among Black and Brown communities.

Pantoja and her husband, Adrian Cruz-Martinez, met one of the hundreds of local families benefiting from their donation at ASI Chicago’s office in Logan Square. She teared up as she hugged Karina Aguilar, the mother of 11-year-old Felipe, who was born with cerebral palsy and has quadriplegia.

Karina Aguilar touches her son Felipe’s hair during a news conference at ASI Chicago.
Karina Aguilar touches her son Felipe’s hair during a news conference at ASI Chicago.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“I felt like just being in the presence of everybody that [Dylan] was giving me a hug, like yes — this is proof we’re doing good,” Pantoja said. “And when I saw Felipe, it was just reliving life with Dylan again.”

Aguilar said the Pantoja family’s gifts are a show of kindness and solidarity.

“To receive this act of generosity is something we will never forget,” said Aguilar, whose family lives on the Northwest Side. “I know your son Dylan is looking down from heaven and is smiling on all of us today.”

When Dylan died in 2019, the Pantoja family — who moved to San Antonio from Puerto Rico in 2014 to provide Dylan a better quality of life — had no more need for the boxes upon boxes of medical equipment and supplies in their garage. They called several organizations in Texas and found most were already well supplied or didn’t have a need for their items.

That’s when their attorney with Chicago ties connected the family with ASI Chicago.

Earlier this summer, the Pantojas loaded up a U-Haul with the medical equipment and supplies — including wheelchairs, special beds, feeding pumps, diapers and gauze among other items — and drove it from San Antonio to Chicago before returning for Tuesday’s event.

Pantoja sympathized with Aguilar when she discussed the difficulties of getting expensive equipment, like a Hoyer lift or reclining and standing wheelchair, that the family deems necessary but insurance doesn’t.

Though they just met, the two mothers said they’ll be forever bonded.

“After today, I know that a beautiful friendship will develop because, basically, she’s just starting this journey, and I have been walking her miles for some time,” Pantoja said. “I know maybe a little more information or organizations that she could go to get help or anything.”

“We just met, and it’s like ... we know each other,” Aguilar said. “I’m so glad to pick this up, and I know Dylan is smiling.”