A year ago, just getting to class was a struggle for Moise Brutus.
Two years before, the Miami Dade College chemistry major had crashed his Honda motorcycle on Florida’s Turnpike. He woke up in a ditch, his left hand missing, one leg gone and another severed. He managed to use his right hand to call 911 for help and then, after officers finally found him, kept talking as they wrapped tourniquets to stanch the bleeding.
Brutus, then 20, made it far on sheer courage: surgery, rehab, prosthetics, and training seven days a week on a bike he found on Ebay to become a contender for the 2016 Summer Paralympics.
But determination could not reliably take him to class every day.
“You can’t really depend on catching rides to go to school,” Brutus said.
The triple amputee needed a car with a handbrake and steering that he could operate with his prosthetics. Thanks to the Miami Herald’s Wish Book, Brutus got one. Last year, he became one of more than 750 people Miami Herald readers helped with more than $500,000 in cash and in-kind donations.
While Brutus got a shiny new silver Suzuki Kizashi from an anonymous donor — along with a new bike and equipment from Mack Cycle in South Miami — others received furniture, books in Braille, car payments and home repairs. Many donations were made in cash, while others were priceless: three readers offered to donate kidneys to a Hollywood woman undergoing dialysis three times a week while caring for her ailing father.
If there is any doubt what a little help can accomplish, look no further than Brutus. This summer he starts classes at Florida A&M University, on his way to earning an undergraduate degree in health care and a master’s degree in public health.
“From its origin, it’s been a real special calling for us,” said Herald Publisher David Landsberg. “One thing that never changes is need. That never goes down. It only gets greater and never gets met.”
Beginning today, readers will hear about the wants and dreams of some of South Florida’s neediest as the 30th annual Miami Herald Wish Book kicks off. Among them are 13-year-old Stephania Germain, and her brother, Ruggue, 11, who escaped Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and would like to take their foster parents on a short vacation to Disney World or Busch Gardens.
Stephanie Flores, 17, an honors student who has no computer, printer or Internet access in her house, has struggled to find places to complete her school work. Her father recently lost his job. Her mother works as a high school cafeteria worker. Stephanie would like a computer.
Others who will be profiled in the newspaper include a single mother caring for her severely disabled 7-year-old; a young mother recently diagnosed with muscular dystrophy and struggling to raise a young daughter with a speech impediment; and a 79-year-old World War II vet with health issues.
Though their circumstances differ vastly, many share a common need: a computer. While once a luxury, today’s virtual world has made it even harder on the neediest to operate without one.
“Really what we’re doing is highlighting these stories and asking for people to come aid them,” Landsberg said. “It really is cementing the idea that each individual can help. Sometimes we receive very large and generous donations and sometimes we get $5 or $10. And they’re both wonderful. Nobody is excluded from helping.”
Last year, 5-year-old Payton Petty, who inherited a rare condition called keratitis that has left him mostly blind and often in pain, received an iPad, books in Braille and a room makeover from the World Cause Foundation, a nonprofit that provides humanitarian aid and medical equipment to those in need.
“Oh, man was he surprised,” said his father, Decature. “He just started hollering. He loves his room. He uses his iPad every day. We definitely appreciate your help and thank you so much for what you’ve done.”
After a story ran describing her husband’s sudden death, leaving Rosario Goldman to raise her two young daughters alone, a man knocked on her door Christmas Day and handed her $500.
“He only gave me his name, Carlos,” said Goldman, who desperately wants to thank the man. “I have a card, but I don’t know where to send it.”
Over the years, the Miami Herald has helped thousands — many more than those whose stories appear in the paper. This year alone, social service agencies in South Florida nominated 165 cases, but only about 30 of those will appear in the newspaper, explained Wish Book coordinator Roberta DiPietro.
“The money doesn’t just go to these people in the paper,” she said. “There are 150 others who are nominated whom we try to service.”
And while cash is always needed, sometimes the best donations involve no money. Several years ago DiPietro said the Wish Book profiled a father enrolled in medical school, who had been diagnosed with cancer. He needed a bone marrow transplant.
“We had many people call to be tested and through the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, he had the surgery for free. He has now finished medical school and is a doctor and has two beautiful children.”
Started in 1952 with its Lend-A-Hand Fund, the paper’s tradition of giving has evolved over the years. In 1983, it published its first Wish Book and every year since has kicked off the holiday season by telling stories about needy people, giving readers a chance to make a difference in a neighbor’s life. Readers can now go to the paper’s web site and find the Wish Book page (www.miamiherald.com/wishbook) and make a donation directly from the page using a secure link., or use their cell phone to give ( text WISH to 41444).
“Running a charity is not exactly core to a newspaper. But when we see just how many needs pop up, and the overwhelming support that’s needed, we feel we need to continue to do this,” Landsberg explained. “We really feel it’s become a part of what we do and valuable for what we do as an organization.”
When Miami Herald reporter David Smiley wrote about Layla Paul last year, she was suffering from a congenital heart defect that left only half her heart working. While she waited for a heart transplant at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood, her mother, Amena Khan, stayed by her side. Khan had quit her job and refused to go home until she and her partner, Kevin Paul, a U.S. Marine, could bring their baby home.
During the long tedious hours, Khan had started a Facebook page, chronicling highs and lows. There was the day in October 2012 when sunlight touched her daughter’s face for the first time in five months. And a bad January night when she needed her “prayer warriors” because fluid was collecting in Layla’s lungs.
“I just needed prayers at that point,” she remembers. “I was sitting in a hospital room all the time.”
After the story ran, her number of friends began climbing, eventually reaching more than 16,000.
“By the time I talked to David, I think we had 1,300 followers and after I talked to him, it just shot up,” Khan said. “It gave me something to do. And I felt like every day I had to respond because if someone had taken the time to write to me, I needed to write back. The day of the transplant, I ended up updating the page every couple of hours. I mean, they were right there with me. So it was therapeutic and it was encouraging.”
Layla, 2, is home now, learning to walk, eating real food for the first time and starting to talk. Mom, meanwhile, is going back to school, inspired by her daughter to become a nurse and repay the support and goodwill she received in her own time of need.