After a rough year, a bright red Ferrari under the Christmas tree was a dream come true for Samantha Gonzalez.
Last Christmas, the then 3-year-old was still recovering from a tragic accident. Her grandma was giving her a bath in the sink when a pressure cooker full of chicken soup on the stove exploded, searing most of Samantha’s body with second- and third-degree burns.
She lost her fingers, the toes on her left foot, and her right leg during her 215-day hospital stay. At that point, she mostly got around in her tiny pink wheelchair. But when they went to the store, her grandma said, the toddler would moon over the shiny electric kiddie car.
That Christmas, Samantha was delighted to unwrap her new hot rod. She also has a new prosthetic limb, and the years of therapy and upgrades she’ll need down the line are all covered, thanks to the generosity of Miami Herald readers. Thanksgiving launches Wish Book 2017, a nonprofit effort that has been a mission of the Miami Herald for more than 35 years, helping South Florida’s neediest people thanks to the generous support of readers like you.
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Last year, Wish Book recipients received cars, job offers, appliances and computers. Donations of expensive and life-changing medical equipment gave people the chance to communicate and live more independently.
“Wishbook is powered by the generosity of our readers, who year after year reach into their wallets to help their less fortunate neighbors. It shows this community’s immense capacity to care for others,” said Miami Herald Executive Editor Aminda Marqués González.
When Lois Chambers, a cook at Goodwill Industries for nearly 20 years who lost all her teeth and couldn’t afford to replace them, had her story published, 30 dentists called to help her. Some went above and beyond the dentures she requested and offered implants, a much more expensive procedure.
The Fortulien family got their first-ever Christmas tree, just in time for the holidays.
Samantha’s grandmother, Caridad Fernandez, said her granddaughter received everything she wished for last year — and more.
“Every time she steps into that little red car she remembers. She remembers the donors and all the people that came together to help her,” Fernandez said. “Though she’s a child, she is very aware of how much love she has received. She once asked me, ‘Grandma can I call them friends?’ I said, ‘Darling, of course you can; of course— your forever friends.’ “
The collection of stories, which will appear in the paper and online, starts with Quanisha Hepburn, 18. A fun night out to celebrate a friend’s birthday ended in a hail of gunfire and devastating injuries for Quanisha, who spent weeks in the trauma unit. She struggled to get her life back to normal, to learn to walk and work again. She made it across the graduation stage, but she would like a car to get around and a computer to search for jobs.
This holiday season, the Herald and El Nuevo Herald will introduce readers to a few dozen other people, including:
? Tranesha Smith, 33. Tranesha, who has two children with a third due in late November, took her family to a shelter during Hurricane Irma. When they came home, they found their door kicked in, their home ransacked and whatever was left destroyed by wind and rain. The Smith family would like furniture, electronics and basic household items.
? Katherine Sanchez, 15. Since she moved to Miami from Cuba a little over a year ago, Katherine has been learning to speak English, as well as read and write in the English version of Braille. She’s legally blind, and the teenager cleans homes and offices whenever she can to make extra money for her and her mom. She hopes for a laptop to help her out with schoolwork.
? Elliot Lightsey, III, 5. Hurricane Irma left his home’s roof leaking in three places, but that wasn’t the start of Elliot’s troubles. His mother, a single mom raising three children facing developmental disabilities, behavioral difficulties and speech delays, was a victim of domestic abuse at the hands of Elliot’s father. She would like to get her roof fixed and add an extra air-conditioning vent for the third bedroom so her kids don’t have to share one room.
? Devontae-Antwan Hemans, 18. In October, Devontae, who has an intellectual disability and attends Miami Central High School, was outside of his family’s mobile home when he was hit by a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting. Until the swelling goes down, the bullet has to stay inside his body. His family would like a laptop and a TV so they can entertain themselves inside their home because they don’t feel safe outside anymore.
Donations help the families and people highlighted in the stories and the hundreds of others selected by social work organizations across the region. Last year, Herald readers donated more than $500,000, enough to help more than 170 families and 750 individuals. This year, there are more families to help than ever before, partly because of Hurricane Irma’s sideswipe of South Florida.
Alexandra Villoch, president and publisher of the Miami Herald Media Company, said the challenges Wish Book recipients face have become more complex and compelling over the more than 35 years the project has been in motion.
“Years ago, most requests were simple, focused on lifting holiday spirits. Today, requests overwhelmingly reflect basic needs to survive,” she said.
“I want to thank our readers who have contributed to Wish Book in the past, and continue to do so. Wish Book gives our readers a way to extend a helping hand to the needy in our community, brightening the holidays for everyone involved and exemplifying the spirit of the season.”
Miami Herald staff writer Monique O. Madan contributed to this story.
How to help
Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email [email protected]. (The most requested items are laptops and tablets for school, furniture, and accessible vans.) Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.