MERCED — Four years ago, Mario Guerrero was a typical 13-year-old. He worked on the yearbook at his school and was learning about television broadcasting.
Then he went swimming with some friends.
"I don't remember what happened," said Guerrero. "I woke up at the University of California, Davis, hospital, and I was paralyzed."
Just two weeks before he turned 14, Guerrero found himself a paraplegic, with a month of his life missing from his memory. He had suffered a spinal cord injury, and was given only a 20 percent chance to live. He breathed through a ventilator and he had to be fed through a tube. Doctors told him he would always be paralyzed from the neck down.
But Guerrero is a fighter. Four years later, the 18-year-old Merced man has graduated from Buhach Colony High. And although he is confined to a wheelchair, he can move his arms and legs.
Guerrero had always loved animals. Nine years ago, his mother picked up a cockatiel off a street after almost running over the bird.
Although the family didn't have room for a lot of animals, birds and fish were part of their life for years.
When Guerrero went into physical therapy for his injury, his therapist urged him to get a dog.
"So I got Foo-Foo," Guerrero said. The little dog, a Chihuahua-dachshund cross, has made a world of difference to the teen.
"I had to go through such tragic changes that almost no one understood," Guerrero said. "Some days I would cry and he would lick my tears and make me feel better."
Six months ago, Guerrero found a pregnant cat that was about to give birth. He talked his mom into letting him bring the cat inside. Two days later there were six kittens added to Guerrero's animal family.
When those kittens got old enough, they went to a rescue group in Marin County, and Guerrero's family decided to keep the mother cat, now called Big Mama.
Then another litter of kittens came into Guerrero's life. He volunteers with his church, Miniesterios Elim, helping to feed the homeless along Black Rascal Creek. Some of the homeless had taken in a stray cat with a litter, and the kittens were in bad shape.
"I decided to bring them home," Guerrero said. "The day I took them, they had been fed sour cream for a meal. The homeless have a hard time feeding themselves. They were doing the best they could for the cats."
Five kittens came home with Guerrero, and he contacted Mary Jo Campodonica, who had helped him place the first litter of kittens.
"We had built a relationship," said Campodonica. "We talked a lot on the phone. He's wise beyond his years." But this time helping the kittens wasn't so easy.
Campodonica told Guerrero she would try to get this litter also out to rescue. But the tiny kittens had ringworm, a death sentence at most shelters and rescue groups.
"I told him the kittens should probably be euthanized because treating ringworm is a long process and it spreads like wildfire," Campodonica said.
But Guerrero wasn't about to let the kittens die. He told Campodonica he would treat the kittens.
"They had such a hard start in life," Guerrero explained. "It would really hurt me if we had to put them down."
For two months, Guerrero gave the kittens baths and treated them for ringworm. He ended up with one spot of ringworm on his arm, but shrugged it off.
Now that the kittens are healthy and ready to go to new homes, Guerrero has turned his attention back to the homeless and their animals.
"They're getting kicked out of where they live, and for some of them, their pets are the only family they have," Guerrero said. He is making lists of the pets owned by the homeless and wants to help get the animals spayed and neutered.
Guerrero's future looks brighter than ever. He wants to go to the University of California at Merced, hopefully studying environmental law. In the meantime, the animals continue to inspire him.
"I know I defied the odds," he said. "Sitting and crying all day isn't going to make me walk. It may take me a while, but I'm not giving up."