Frances Alvarez has a plan for Christmas Day — one that she aims to accomplish every day: Make someone happy.
“Even though I have a disability, I love people,” the 25-year-old North Miami Beach woman said. “I love to make them laugh and sometimes that is what it takes to make someone’s day — to make them smile or laugh, to make a difference.”
On this day, however, Alvarez, who is nearly blind due to an inoperable brain tumor, is all smiles because someone else took a page from her playbook. After reading her story in the Miami Herald’s Wish Book series in early December, Alexandra Esteve, vice president of marketing and e-commerce for Headquarter Toyota, donated $3,600 to cover the cost of a Da Vinci Pro desktop magnifier device to help Alvarez read with her one good eye.
The Miami Lighthouse for the Blind scheduled delivery of the device, along with training in how to use it, to her house for Friday, the day before Christmas Eve.
“I didn’t expect to have this given to me,” Alvarez said of the top-shelf Da Vinci model, which attaches to a monitor to offer high-definition viewing of printed text along with selective text-to-speech. I’m really happy to get this machine. I’m excited.”
Alvarez is one of dozens of people who will be helped this season by Wish Book, a community effort that has been a mission of the Miami Herald for 35 years. For the 2016 campaign, the Herald spotlights about 30 nominees in the paper and online through January, said Wish Book coordinator Roberta DiPietro. Wish Book accepts donations year-round.
“This year the outpouring of generosity has granted the wishes of more than 850 individuals,” said DiPietro. “What is especially endearing is the number of donors that are providing in-kind services to the nominees. We have contractors that have donated their talents to remodel bathrooms to make them accessible, offers to provide legal services, dental services, help needy families with rent and assist with medical care.”
To date, Wish Book 2016 has raised $200,000, thanks to an extra week of giving since Thanksgiving was earlier this year. In 2015, at the Christmas mark, the number was $160,000.
In Alvarez’s case, she started to lose her sight at age 10, when doctors detected a brain tumor that could not be entirely removed. As a result, her mobility was compromised. The tumor causes daily pain, including migraines. She has only partial vision in her right eye.
But Alvarez inspires others with her deeds. She volunteers at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital and with the Pages to Stages theater drama group, which performs plays for sick children. She also volunteers to help veterans in the Wounded Warrior Project and, with a guide at her side, is training for the Paralympics in rowing at the Miami Beach Rowing Club.
You have people who tell you you can’t do that but to motivate others who are physically disabled or mentally disabled, to be able to make a difference in their lives, it’s amazing.
“I’ve been doing this for the past two years and, specifically, this case has touched me,” said Adriana Sarcos of Spinal Cord Living-Assistance Development, a Hialeah organization that has provided free assistance to hundreds of low-income people since 1985. Sarcos nominated Alvarez for Wish Book.
“She has been blind since age 10 but is very positive about life and in attitude. She’s constantly in hospitals, in and out, and doctors don’t know what to do about her illness. But she’s still positive about finding a cure for herself and is involved in the community. She wants to work and this will help her work.”
In addition to the Da Vinci reader, Jorge Gaetano of Samsung has donated a speech-recognition smart phone to help Alvarez get around. She shares a home with her parents and two younger brothers.
The kindness of Esteve’s and Gaetano’s gifts have encouraged Alvarez to keep moving forward. “That is my motto,” she said. “I didn’t know this was going to happen and when I did find out about it I was really happy. For regular-bodied people, keep on swimming. Keep on being able to inspire others.”
Little wonder one of Alvarez’s own inspirations is the plucky cartoon fish Dory in the popular Walt Disney movies, “Finding Nemo” and “Finding Dory.”
“I’m like Dory…who always says, ‘Keep swimming.’ Even if it’s difficult, we can’t give up.”
Other Wish Book gifts have included:
▪ Some $40,000 in much-needed dental work from Illustradent South Miami for Goodwill cafeteria lead cook Lois Chambers. Her co-workers nominated her for Wish Book because they want to see the cheerful, hard-working woman smile again.
▪ Legal aid from Americans for Immigrant Justice and St. Thomas University Immigration Clinic for Eskarleth Yoleny Hernandez, a 15-year-old girl who fled Honduras after her mother was slain four years ago. She needs help to seek asylum in the United States.
▪ And, for 3-year-old Samantha Gonzalez, a toy red car, red laptop, purse and a doll from various individuals, along with prosthetics worth up to $20,000 from Orthopro Associates. In September 2015, the toddler was severely burned when a pressure cooker exploded while her disabled grandmother bathed her in the kitchen sink. Samantha suffered second- and third-degree burns to 60 percent of her body, had several skin grafts and emergency surgeries and complications that led doctors to amputate her right leg, fingers and the toes on her left foot.
Said DiPietro: “Needs are as vast as handicap vans to transport medically involved children to as small as a wish for a Christmas tree. We are still fulfilling wishes of the more challenging nominations — home repairs, medical equipment, furniture and needs of several foster children that have aged out of care and are finding themselves having to set up apartments.
“It is always rewarding to see how our dedicated readers reach out to help their needy neighbors,” DiPietro added, “especially during the holidays, a time that can be bleak for many in our community.”
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How to help
Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. To give via your mobile phone, text WISH to 41444. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook@MiamiHerald.com. (Most requested items: laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans.) Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.