Peter Randy Baker is about to communicate in words for the first time in four years.
His head lowered in focus, he slowly extends the index finger on his left hand and hesitantly taps the touch-screen of a tablet, producing one syllable from a built-in speaker: “Yes.”
Baker looks up through eyeglasses and flashes a wide, infectious smile. His mother, her hands shaking from nerves, beams.
It’s a life-changing moment for Baker, diagnosed at birth 29 years ago with cerebral palsy. The neurological disorder causes abnormal brain development and left him unable to control the right side of his body. It also robbed him of the ability to effectively communicate without assistance, and his last speech-generating device broke long ago due to overuse.
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But over the holidays, a Miami Herald reader who learned of Baker’s story through the newspaper’s charitable Wish Book series bought him a $4,000 Tobii Dynavox T10, a customizable Android-based tablet that pairs pictures with text-to-speech programming in order to help its users communicate. With the help of a sales representative, Baker gave the device a whirl for the first time Thursday morning at the Miami headquarters of Goodwill, the company that employs him and nominated him for a Wish Book story.
“I feel better now that he can help himself,” said Martha Baker, his 79-year-old mother, who is not only his caretaker but also his interpreter for outings to the mall, church and basketball games. “He doesn’t have to rely on me. He can be more independent.”
The gift was one of hundreds made during this 35th Wish Book season, a year that set a record for the number of donors at about 2,000 individuals and companies. In response to 28 stories in the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald covering the plights of worthy South Floridians in need of a little help — and charity fundraising efforts to help another 140 nominees — South Florida gave about a half-million dollars in cash, in-kind services and pledges.
Wish Book is a celebration also of our readers, who are so incredibly generous and also willing to help their neighbors out.
Aminda Marqués Gonzalez, Miami Herald executive editor
That generosity has helped 750 men, women and children, some of them coping with death, health complications and poverty. Gifts included everything from a set of dental braces for 12-year-old Nadahlia Gonel, to a cough-assist respiratory machine for Diego Alarcon, who, like Baker, was diagnosed at a young age with cerebral palsy and struggles to breathe.
“Every little bit they give is meaningful,” said Roberta DiPietro, the Wish Book coordinator for Miami Herald charities.
While big-ticket items make for nice headlines, many donations were of the smaller variety, and they came from individual readers like Fatima Petrin, a single, unemployed mother of three adult children from Hollywood. Petrin read a story about Jenny Mesa-Tejeda, a single mother raising Michael, a legally blind autistic 3-year-old, and immediately identified with the situation.
Petrin, whose oldest son is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, said she wanted to help Mesa’s family out however she could. She connected with friends, bought toys recommended by the family’s social worker, and talked to her pastor about donating a pull-out sofa for Mesa to sleep on.
750 people helped $500,000 in donations
“It was like I was looking in the mirror,” Petrin said. “We’ve always had people who have gone out of their way to help us over the years, and this is my way of saying ‘We need to pay it back.’ ”
Aminda Marqués Gonzalez, the Miami Herald’s executive editor, said Wish Book represents a crucial part of the Miami Herald’s mission to inform and connect readers to their community.
“We shine a light into dark corners and we challenge the powerful. But we also celebrate our community and help lift others. Wish Book is a celebration also of our readers, who are so incredibly generous and also willing to help their neighbors out,” she said. “These are folks who have a real sense of community, and it’s why they give.”
For Peter Randy Baker, the benevolence of others could make a huge difference in his life, as well as his mother’s.
Easygoing, a huge Dwyane Wade fan and lover of televangelist Benny Hinn’s faith-healing summits, Baker has been mostly unable to share his likes and feelings with his co-workers and friends at Goodwill since he began working there after his first speech-generating device broke. Without the ability to speak, and difficulty reading and writing, he’s gotten by with grunts and hand motions, which aren’t always easy to understand.
His mother hopes that with the T10, Baker will become more independent. But she also hopes they’ll be able to share a little more with each other, too. “This way,” she said, “we can talk together.”
How does Baker feel about that?
He reaches out his index finger and taps a picture: “Awesome.”