Local News

Saturday, Jun 30 2012 04:00 PM

Parents mourn little boy lost 'in the blink of an eye'

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    By Shelby Mack / The Californian

    Alma and German Robledo hold a photograph of their family taken at South Bakersfield High School's prom this year. Their 8-year-old son, Benicio, died on Father's Day after he drowned in the family's pool.

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    By Shelby Mack / The Californian

    Benicio Robledo was known among his friends and family for dressing up in costumes and for his ever-present black cowboy boots. Those boots were still sitting on the stairway in the Robledo home less than a week after the 8 year old drowned in his family's backyard pool.

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    By Shelby Mack / The Californian

    The Robledo family attended prom at South Bakersfield High School, where Alma works, and stepped into the photobooth the spring before Benicio drowned in the family's pool.

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BY ANTONIE BOESSENKOOL Californian staff writer aboessenkool@bakersfield.com

German Robledo remembers his 8-year-old son, Benicio, or Beni, as a spirited boy who loved to suit up in superhero costumes and battle the bad guys. He liked Captain America and the Avengers, but also Elvis and Johnny Cash.

He had a pair of black boots like Cash's he wore whenever he wanted to impress, his parents said.

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PREVENTING TRAGEDY

Eight-year-old Benicio Robledo was the second child in Kern County to die this year from drowning in a residential pool. A few days after that accident, 5-year-old Dominick Valencia drowned when he slipped into the Beardsley Canal. Last year, three children died from drowning accidents.

Kern County has some alarming statistics for drowning accidents involving children, which is why the Bakersfield Professional Firefighters, the firefighters' union, has funded a series of public service announcements in English and Spanish on pool and water safety.

"Those calls are very devastating for everyone involved," said Battalion Chief Ross Kelly. "We wanted to do something about it (and) reduce or eliminate these statistics."

Kern County ranked third in the San Joaquin Valley and tenth in the state in the rate of swimming pool drownings of children ages 1 to 4 from 1999 to 2008. From 2006 to 2010, 23 kids younger than 18 years old drowned in Kern County, according to Jeff Heinle of the Bakersfield Fire Department.

Even more alarming is that drowning is the leading cause of death, after birth defects, for kids 1 to 4 years old, and most of those drownings happen in home swimming pools, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The impetus for the PSA came from the firefighters themselves, who gave money individually through the union's charity arm for the PSA. Government grants don't often cover a media campaign, Heinle said, so Kelly proposed to the union's board that it fund a PSA to get water safety information to a wide audience.

The PSA will be shown along with previews at the Fox Theater, UA Movies 6 and Edwards Bakersfield Stadium 14 starting July 6. Local TV station KGET filmed the spots for free and started broadcasting them on Monday at a greatly reduced rate on that channel and its CW and Telemundo channels. Mayor Harvey Hall and Hall Ambulance were significant contributors, too.

Kelly said that with most drownings of children younger than 5, one or both parents was in direct supervision of the toddler within the last five minutes.

"All it takes is a minute, going to answer the doorbell, going to answer the phone, getting the laundry," he said. That message is at the crux of the PSA. A mom answers a phone call indoors, but her toddler son has wandered too close to the pool to reach for his teddy bear, which has fallen in. The spots point viewers to swimming lessons with the city, CPR training through the Red Cross, fencing, alarms and supervision.

-- Antonie Boessenkool

Neighbors once saw Beni running down the sidewalk wearing swim trunks, those black boots and a cape, with his head turned to watch the cape flap in the wind behind him. He loved to play, read and use his imagination, German said.

Alma Robledo remembers the 20 to 25 random hugs and kisses Beni would give her every day. He'd blow her a kiss when he walked by, letting his mom know she was constantly loved, she said.

"He loved to give love and receive love," German said on a recent sunny, breezy day as he sat on the family's backyard patio.

Just 25 feet from that patio -- and six days earlier -- the Robledos tragically lost their little boy. Beni drowned in the family's above-ground pool.

It wasn't about being careless, German said. Beni had nut allergies and asthma, and his parents protected him at parties and restaurants from coming into contact with the wrong foods. German and Alma were trained in CPR.

"We made sure that they were protected from strangers, allergies, everything," German said. "Still, it happened to us, in the blink of an eye."

TOGETHERNESS

As teachers, German and Alma had the same vacation schedules as Beni and his sister, 10-year-old Sophia. That meant a lot of time together, but it came naturally to the Robledos. They'd spent 205 days at Disneyland over the years and always found something new to enjoy, German said.

They read together every night and reflected on the day and planned their future fun. If Alma or German were in another room doing chores, all four would gravitate toward each other, and Beni would say, "no matter how small the room, we are always together."

Alma said one of Beni's special rituals with his parents was to pounce into the middle of their bed in the mornings and they would roll him up in the blankets and squeeze him and he'd grin and say, "I feel so loved."

The backyard was a playground for Beni, his sister and their friends, with a big swing set, slide and a tetherball court. (Beni was constantly practicing to defeat kids older than him, his dad said). A depression in yellowed grass marked where the pool had stood until friends took it down for the Robledos two days earlier.

THEIR LAST DAY

Beni had had a wonderful Saturday on June 16,, his mom said. He'd started with jamming on a drum set with his dad in the morning, the two of them playing something like "jungle rhythms," German remembered. He turned to his dad when they were finished and said, "'That was awesome!'" German said.

Then all four of them went to Alma's parents' house for a barbecue, and Beni's grandfather gave him a photo of himself as a soldier during the Vietnam War, sitting atop a tank. Beni loved it, and when the family returned home, he raced upstairs to clear a place for the photo on his nightstand.

As the day was winding down, Beni played in the pool with his mom. He wanted to stay in a few minutes longer when Alma got out and joined German on the patio nearby. After a few minutes, Alma noticed it sounded too quiet, German remembered, and she got up to check on Beni.

Beni was a great swimmer and enjoyed being in the pool, German said. He did not drown because he couldn't swim.

He had tried to swim through the rungs of the A-frame ladder and gotten stuck. German pulled him out with the ladder and started CPR. Alma called 911. The police arrived shortly, then the fire department, then the EMTs. They all worked tirelessly to help Beni, German said. He was taken by ambulance to Mercy Southwest Hospital and later flown to Valley Children's Hospital in Madera, where he died the next morning, Father's Day.

"I enjoyed every moment with Benicio," German said. "And I miss him."

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