National News

12-Year-Old Raises Thousands of Dollars for His Best Friend's Gravestone

Posted December 12, 2018 3:12 p.m. EST
Updated December 12, 2018 8:35 p.m. EST

Kaleb had big plans for his best friend, KJ. To him, it was never a question of whether KJ would get out of the hospital; it was simply a question of when.

KJ, after all, had a history of battling a body that betrayed him: A flu shot made him sick when he was 13 months old; he learned he had leukemia shortly afterward; he had two bone-marrow transplants.

And yet KJ — Kenneth Gross Jr. — seldom complained.

“He was happy even though he went through all that stuff,” observed Kaleb Klakulak, a 12-year-old of few words.

But years of chemotherapy and radiation ate away at KJ’s most important organ. By age 9, he had developed congestive heart failure and by Jan. 7, 2018 — a few days after his 12th birthday — KJ was admitted to a hospital full time. He needed a heart transplant.

Kaleb, though, was undeterred. In his mind, when KJ was released, he and his mother would move north from Warren, Michigan, to Romeo, Michigan, where Kaleb and his family live. The two boys would reside blocks from each other, as they had when they met in the second grade.

On May 1, though, Kaleb’s mother, Kristy Hall, took a phone call from KJ’s mother; she had a bad feeling about the call, and her intuition proved correct.

“I remember walking back home,” Hall said, “and thinking, ‘How am I going to tell my son?'”

‘Brothers, Just of a Different Race’

When Kaleb and KJ first met five years ago, they could not stop talking about each other and insisted on spending hours at each other’s houses. Their mothers quickly understood why their sons got along.

Both were unusually quiet and were being raised by single mothers at the time. They even looked alike, according to KJ’s mother, LaSondra Singleton.

“Fat cheeks,” Singleton said. “I call them brothers, just of a different race.”

Sometimes the boys put down their video games and spent a day at Greenfield Village — a collection of historic buildings — or saw a movie. Kaleb even invited KJ to come to his church, and KJ became a regular there who loved to sing.

It all ended early this year when KJ was hospitalized for the last time. He needed a new heart and was confined to the ICU, with a tube in his throat that prevented him from talking. He became depressed — and doctors turned to Kaleb for help.

Every Tuesday, for months, Kaleb and his mother would visit KJ. The boys would play a wrestling video game and would also paint. The boys did not have to communicate verbally, their mothers said. Kaleb would pick colors for KJ seemingly knowing what he wanted. When 3 p.m. rolled around, KJ would extend his hand to pray. And on Wednesdays, Hall would FaceTime with KJ from church. Hall said KJ’s favorite worship song was “10,000 Reasons,” which she noted for its prescient verse.

And on that day

When my strength is failing

The end draws near

And my time has come

Still my soul will

Sing Your praise unending

Ten thousand years

And then forevermore

ForevermoreA Visit That Became a Goodbye

Singleton, 46, always knew her son was in for a long wait at the hospital. KJ had been exposed to many antibodies, so he would need just the right heart. In the meantime, doctors placed a device in his left ventricle hoping it would give him a better quality of life. “But it didn’t work out that way,” Singleton said.

She would regularly ask her son “if he wanted his heart.” For a while, his written answer on a white board was, “Yes, Mama.”

But in April, after more ups and downs, Singleton asked again.

“He didn’t answer me,” she said though tears. “He just gave me a long stare.”

May 1 was a Tuesday, and Kaleb was getting ready to visit his friend.

When Hall texted Singleton to ask if KJ was up for it, however, Singleton called back — a signal, Hall said, that “something was wrong.”

KJ had taken a turn. His mother was going to take him off life support. This visit would be a goodbye.

Hall explained the situation to her son the best way she knew how. But “he just kept looking at me,” she recalled. “It was a very, very quiet drive.”

That day, while KJ was still alive but not conscious, Kaleb cried and touched his friend’s arm. There were other people in the hospital room, so Kaleb didn’t say much.

How Much for a Headstone?

KJ died that day. Singleton, a mother of six, had stopped working when her son last went into the hospital, and she remained unemployed in the first months after his death. She could not afford a headstone.

She mentioned this to Hall. Could she, perhaps, come up with a way to raise money for a marker?

Kaleb overheard his mother discuss the request and became curious. How much did a headstone cost? Whatever it was, it was more money than he had.

His first idea involved making KJ T-shirts and sending them to YouTube stars to ask for donations. Hall suggested something else: a PayPal donation site. Together, they decided not to simply ask for money; Kaleb would work for it.

He collected enough bottles and raked enough leaves to raise $250 — about half of his original goal. The PayPal post went up after Thanksgiving. Within days, Hall and her son showed up at Singleton’s home with flowers, an apple pie and $900. The PayPal money, they hoped, would climb to $2,500 — enough, they thought, to buy the headstone.

“That just blew me away,” Singleton said.

Then, last week, The Detroit News published an article about Kaleb’s effort and the fundraising campaign took off. As of Wednesday, the donation page said it had received more than 3,000 contributions — no odd jobs required.

Though the page said the $2,500 pledge goal had been met, it did not say how much money had been raised. Hall said she would disclose the amount only to Singleton. But she allowed that Singleton would end up with extra money.

For his part, Kaleb said he was happy that people were giving.

“Honestly, I’m just proud of him for doing what he should do — what everybody should do,” Hall said. “We should help people we love.”

In a telephone interview on Sunday, Singleton said she was not sure what she wanted her son’s headstone to say. “I’ve procrastinated because it makes it final for me,” she said.

The next evening, she went to select one. Hall and Kaleb accompanied her.

Asked on Tuesday whether she had decided what to inscribe, Singleton said she had:

KJ Gross

Cherished brother, son and friend