Student standing with smiling teacher
HHI Teacher Laura King with Ahwahnee Middle School student.
Student holding basketball
​He is playing adaptive basketball.
Student playing violin
HHI student, senior at Bullard High School
Group of boy scouts
​HHI Student, Hoover High School sophomore and Eagle Scout, with his Boy Scout troop # 257 at the dedication of the Outdoor Mobility Course at Valley Children’s Hospital. He raised money as part of his Eagle Scout project to have the course developed. He suffers from a mild form of cerebral palsy and juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. He came up with the idea after he had difficulty learning to maneuver a wheelchair.

Fresno teen, burned in home fire, now ready to graduate

The Fresno Bee June 9, 2015

By Michael Olinger,

  • Israel Gonzalez suffered burns over 65 percent of his body in an explosion
  • Began studying for GED only weeks later
  • Will graduate from Cambridge Continuation High School on Wednesday
Israel with brother and Donald Rotella

Israel Gonzalez, 18, center, of Fresno, stands with his older brother Jose Gonzalez, 20, left, and his home hospital instructor Donald Rotella in Fresno, California on June 9, 2015. Gonzalez suffered burns over 65% of his body five months ago after a gas-leak explosion at his home, but has recovered enough to pass his GED exam and plans to walk at his high school graduation ceremony on Wednesday. | SILVIA FLORES

Israel's hands

Israel Gonzalez, 18, of Fresno, shows the burn scars on his hands that initially caused him to be unable to turn the pages of his school work, in Fresno, California on June 9, 2015. | SILVIA FLORES

On the night of Jan. 10, then 17-year-old Israel Gonzalez was about to fall asleep when his room was suddenly engulfed in flames.

“I was just about to go to sleep. I take off my shirt, and that’s when the wall just falls down,” said Gonzalez. “The whole house just exploded. They said it was a gas leak from the stove.”

After scrambling out of the inferno at his Fresno home and asking his neighbors to douse him with water, Gonzalez was hospitalized with burns over 65 percent of his body. Gonzalez was taken to Community Regional Medical Center for treatment. A few weeks later, he was back to his studies. On Wednesday, alongside his big brother Jose, he graduates with his general equivalency degree.

Donald Rotella has been a teacher in the Fresno area for 37 years. In addition to working with the deaf and hard of hearing, Rotella does home/hospital instruction. In late January, Gonzalez became one of Rotella’s students. He began working with Gonzalez while he was still in the hospital.

“He couldn’t turn pages. There was blood on his fingers. He was wrapped up in gauze. He wasn’t able to actually write because of his bandages,” said Rotella.

But the teen was determined. “Israel was very patient, very focused,” said Rotella.

GED exams have five sections — math, science, social studies, reading and writing. Over the course of the next few months, Rotella would teach Gonzalez to master them all. There were times when Gonzalez felt like giving up, but support from friends, family, hospital staff and fellow burn victims kept him on track.

“The only thing that made me kind of want to stop was the pain, but I just kept kept thinking of what they would tell me in the hospital — to not let it bring me down,” said Gonzalez. “People would tell me stories about how they got burned and how they recovered and those got in my mind.”

During his time at the hospital, Jose was always by Gonzalez’s side.

“I gave him advice about finishing school. When he was in the hospital, I told him to be strong and try to get his education,” said Jose, who will be going to Fresno City College after graduation to study engineering.

“I was always right there. If he needed anything, instead of calling the nurses, I would be right there to help him.

Gonzalez will study nursing at Fresno City College after graduation, but he didn’t always have a passion for higher education.

“Before the fire, I would just be on the street, hanging out with my friends, not even really wanting to go to school. After it happened, it just opened my eyes to go to school and finish college and make something of my life,” said Gonzalez. “Because I saw how close I was to losing my life.”

With a newfound sense of direction and a tenacity that wouldn’t bow down to pain or hardship, Gonzalez will graduate from Cambridge Continuation High School in a ceremony held at the Roosevelt High School auditorium on Wednesday. He expressed gratitude to the man who helped get him there.

“Thanks a lot, you really helped me,” Gonzalez said to Rotella. “I wouldn’t be here without you.”

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