Christmas portrait of Jocelyn and Charlton Spurlin and their children, Colin, left, and Malia.
Christmas portrait of Jocelyn and Charlton Spurlin and their children, Colin, left, and Malia. (Damien Smith)

This Christmas will be a much better one than last year's for Malia Spurlin and her family.

Last Christmas Malia was in the hospital with difficulty breathing caused by an enlarged heart. Her parents were told that Malia, then only 3 1/2 months old, needed a heart transplant or she would die.

On Feb. 28 Malia got her new heart, a tiny organ weighing a little more than half an ounce, at the UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital.

Today marks the first anniversary of Dateline Long Beach, a column I started with emphasis on people with interesting stories to tell and people who make a difference in our community without worrying about getting recognition.

In today's column I want to bring you up-to-date on some of those people, including Malia, a young boy with leukemia, a teenager who wouldn't let a thief steal her bike and a high school band leader who resurrected the Marching Saints at St. Anthony's.

One column that touched many hearts was the story of young Malia Spurlin and her struggle to live.

How is she doing today?

"She's doing really well," her mother, Jocelyn, said from her home in Downey. "She's starting to crawl, and she's trying to walk, too."

Malia is 15 months old and is seeing a physical therapist and an occupational therapist. Once a month she goes to UCLA for a check on her heart and blood.

"This will be our first Christmas together at home," said her father, Charleton, a counselor at Cabrillo High School on Long Beach's westside. "We are truly blessed."

Malia has a twin brother, Colin, who did not have any health issues.

Another young person who touched readers is Cooper Evans, 6, who is being treated for leukemia and raised $6,000 by selling lemonade at a stand outside Trani's Restaurant a few months ago.

How is Cooper doing?

"He started first grade at Longfellow Elementary and is doing very well," said his mother, Heather. "He just went through a tough week of steroid treatment, which he does once a month, but he doesn't complain. His teacher said you wouldn't know he is ill."

Cooper's mom said he is still in the fundraising business. "He was in a Cooking for Kids contest, which raised $12,000 for Miller Children's Hospital, and this spring he is planning a sock hop to raise money. He'll be selling lemonade, too."

Another popular story involved this column asking readers to donate instruments and money to outfit the St. Anthony High School Marching Band, which had been disbanded years ago.

St. Anthony President Gina Rushing Maguire gave this report on the Marching Saints: "Donations allowed us to outfit every student (32) participating in the band program. The first marching band performance in 20 years was at a fall football game. The marching band also has won several awards in band competitions. We did so well as newcomers."

Maguire said interest in the Marching Saints is strong for next year thanks to the support of alumni and friends and the tireless teaching of music director Michael Lloyd. And, she said, donations of instruments and money are still greatly needed and appreciated.

Ashley Gardea has become something of a mini-celebrity after my column in August describing how she ran after a woman who had stolen her bright orange beach cruiser bike.

Ashley, 15, got the bike back with the help of a good Samaritan who chased after the thief in his van.

Ashley's mother, Marlea, said the theft has made Ashley more careful about locking up her bike.

"She also is proud of getting the bike back and proudly tells people her story," her mother said. "She's also better known at Los Alamitos High School where she's on the cross-country team. The coach has named different workouts after her, like the Ashley Bikechaser Run and the Ashley Bikebreaker Run."

At an awards banquet recently, Ashley was recognized as one of the five outstanding runners on the cross- country team, her mother said.

Ken and Colette Santucci, who have 16 children ranging in age from 32 to 55, were the subject of my Father's Day column. Asked if anything special had happened since then, Colette said, "Well, we had our 26th grandchild (a grandson, Bennett) born to my son Mark and his wife, Jennifer. These grandkids make Christmas a very expensive time."

As I said in my introductory column, everyone has a story, and you've just read updates about a few of them. Many of my column ideas come from readers. If you know of people who inspire others, who are doing extraordinary things with little or no recognition, people who are making a difference, let me know. Send your ideas to me at addresses listed below.

rich.archbold@presstelegram.com, 562-499-1285. http://twitter.com/richarchbold1