Its been three years since Therissa Leo was trapped under the wreckage of her home, alone, frightened and in severe pain. At 7 years old, she was brave enough to sing gospel songs to stay alive during two long days and dark nights.
The devastating earthquake killed her mom and 11-year-old sister, and led to the amputation of part of her right arm, but it did not crush her spirit or that of her father, Ernst.
Dad and daughter mourned in Haiti before coming to Miami to rebuild their shattered lives. It is here in their adopted city that they have found hope for bright futures. Some of that hope is due to the generosity of Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald readers, who came to their aid after learning about their plight last year during the 31st annual Herald Charities Wish Book campaign.
Therissa was given an iPad. Her father said he has made sure that she puts it to good educational use, which includes advancing her reading skills shes now devouring Princess Electra Out of Barburee.
Its also helped her improve in her favorite subject, math.
I learn how to do more things, said Therissa, a thriving fifth-grader at Biscayne Gardens Elementary School. I learn how to multiply like three ways.
Ernest Leo was offered one of the greatest gifts of all: a job. While he works physically hard for just $8.25 an hour, the employment at Navarro Discount Pharmacies was a godsend after being laid off by a medical supply company that was moving its operation to Costa Rica.
The exhausted, but determined and doting father, said the job in the pharmacys warehouse has enabled him to attend Miami Dade College. His goal is to become a nurse. I want to help other people like the nurses who came to Haiti to help my daughter, he said.
The Leos heart-breaking story was one of about 40 that were highlighted last year during the holiday season. The stories all brought to life the individual needs of South Floridians who are struggling physically, emotionally and economically due to circumstances beyond their control.
As Herald and El Nuevo readers have done for the past three decades, they opened their hearts and wallets to help. The 2011 drive raised $369,837 in cash and about $165,000 in in-kind donations that included computers, furniture and cars. Wish Book donors also offered three jobs.
Thats never happened before, said Wish Book coordinator Roberta DiPietro.
The combined $535,000 in donations was a 10 percent increase from 2010 and helped more than 800 people.
We are here to fill a need of people who have fallen through the safety net, said David Landsberg, president and publisher of The Miami Herald Media Company. When people hear about them, they come to the rescue.
Many people wanted to help the bubbly 10-year-old boy, Elin Mena Jr., who suffers from cerebral palsy. Hes unable to speak and unable to move on his own. His parents had wished for a wheelchair carrier ramp for their car.
But digging deeper into the story, the reporter learned that Elin also would greatly benefit from a specialized wheelchair, a C400 VS rehab chair that would give him the freedom to recline and stand without help. The cost: a whopping $38,000.
Sunset Mobility of Miami donated the wheelchair lift for the car. A major donor, who wished to remain anonymous, as well as others who were touched by Elins story contributed enough money to provide him with the life-changing chair.