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Community Effort Brings Lake Forest Teen Home

18-year-old Jimmy Pequeno, severely injured in a summer car crash, returns to his house for the first time in seven months. He is welcomed by family, friends and supporters.

Robert Pequeno, an Orange County Sheriff's deputy who serves in Lake Forest, wasn't particularly gung-ho about human nature.

But in the last seven months, a tsunami of community support for his son --  who was severely injured in a -- has brought him a new appreciation for friends and strangers alike.

"I wouldn't say I'm a pessimist, exactly ... but if you told me a year ago that all this would happen, I'd tell you to go take a drug test," he said Wednesday with a wry smile, standing in his front yard.

"All this" encompasses a communitywide campaign involving the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, fundraisers run by students and donations of proceeds from local businesses to bring 18-year-old Jimmy Pequeno home from the hospital.

On Wednesday, the teen -- who should be enjoying his senior year at El Toro High -- returned to his Lake Forest home for the first time since the crash.

He was welcomed with cheers, hugs and tears from family and close friends.

Robert Pequeno spent the night before lying near his son at HealthBridge, a hospital in Orange that cares for young patients who have suffered catastrophic injuries or illnesses.

The injured boy's father said he spoke to Jimmy throughout the night, reminding him that the next day he'd be back home. Since the accident occurred, he and his wife, Angela Pequeno, have spent most of their time at the hospital.

They both have put their jobs on hold -- Robert taking time away from the Sheriff's Department and Angela on leave from her position with Target.

On Wednesday, a taxi van backed into the Pequeno's driveway and the couple ushered their son inside, Robert pushing Jimmy's wheelchair.

The teen, who is in a semiconscious state, had his eyes open and blinked steadily as he was wheeled past supporters standing in the family's front yard.

He was taken to a new room, recently built with amenities similar to a hospital room. In addition to a hospital bed, the 23-by-13-foot room has a handicap bath and shower area with a mobile hoist, and climate controls to keep his body temperature in the appropriate range.

Seeing the community's eagerness to help the Pequeno family has also lifted the spirits of Mike McElheny, of Laguna Beach-based contracting company McElheny Construction, who donated his time to turn a sunroom at the back of the house into a rehab room for Jimmy.

"It was totally gratifying to be able to help people in need and I was just amazed at how many people really care and helped out," McElheny said. "There are a lot of [people with] good hearts... It's redeemed my faith in humanity a little bit."

So far, the sheriff's association has collected $58,234 toward a goal of $100,000 for the Pequenos, who had to remodel the family home in anticipation of Jimmy's return, and face expensive medical bills for the forseeable future.

Since the crash, .

Her eyes glowed with excitement Wednesday afternoon as she waited for the taxi carrying Jimmy to arrive home. Tying 100 blue balloons to mailboxes throughout the Pequenos' neighborhood as a welcome home treat helped her expend nervous energy as the minutes ticked by.

"This is way better than Christmas," she said breathlessly, standing near a swath of posters papered over the Pequenos' garage door with notes welcoming Jimmy home. "I couldn't sleep at all last night."

It's likely the last time Jimmy will be transported in a cab, thanks to the generosity of a couple from Mission Viejo who donated a large, white, handicap-accessible van to the family the day after Jimmy's homecoming.

Howard and Ann Larnard said the Pequenos' story touched them, bringing the couple back to the time when their son, Patrick, was in a similar accident at age 19. He was in a coma for three months and his parents slept at the hospital where he was being treated for about a year before he returned home.

Today, Patrick, now 54, lives in Tustin, the Larnards said as they met at City Hall to hand over the van title to Robert Pequeno.

"This means so much to us," Pequeno told the pair. "We were just beating our heads against the wall trying to figure out what to do [for Jimmy's transportation]."

The van, which has a mechanical lift for a wheelchair, will be used to get Jimmy to and from doctor's appointments, his father said.

The Larnards said that in addition to easing the Pequenos' minds about practical considerations, they hope their act will inspire others to assist the Lake Forest family.

"Maybe we'll get more people involved in helping their fellow citizens and doing things for them," said Ann Larnard.

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