Ramona Nuñez was 18 years old when she was left paralyzed by a stray bullet.
That was only the first time her life changed dramatically.
The second time was five years ago, when Nuñez gave birth to her first and only child — a son who is happy, rambunctious and severely autistic.
Without his father around, little Emmanuel’s needs could easily overwhelm anyone: potty training, speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy and more. But it’s especially hard for Nuñez, who can’t walk and has limited use of her hands.
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Not that she lets any of that stop her. The 36-year-old is a regular volunteer at a local school, makes it to all of Emmanuel's school events and sells candy bars outside of the supermarket to make extra money.
“She’s not one who sits around feeling sorry for herself. She takes excellent care of her little boy, who happens to be very autistic,” said Maria Barros, director of the ARC of South Florida in Florida City, an organization that helps people with developmental disabilities.
Barros nominated the Nuñez family for Wish Book. They have big dreams this holiday season for an adapted van that would allow Nuñez to drive herself around, an iPad for Emmanuel, a trip to Disney perhaps and some new furniture. But Nuñez’s greatest wish of all is for a home that is fully accessible and safe for a little boy prone to running off.
“I’m not safe here because of my son,” said Nuñez, who lives in an affordable housing community in South Miami Heights. “I’m scared he can open the door and run.”
Nuñez doesn’t remember much from the night she was shot in her sleep while living in Miami. She was lying in a friend’s bed when someone in the next room shot a gun. The bullet sailed through the bedroom wall and straight into Nuñez’s neck, landing her in a coma.
Nuñez has been paralyzed ever since that night, which she and her mother refer to simply as “the accident.”
“Her life changed completely, and my life, too,” said Ana Padilla, Nuñez’s mother. “I prayed for her.”
Fiercely independent, Nuñez continued to live on her own until she got pregnant with Emmanuel. Nuñez said social service groups told her she needed to find someone able-bodied to help raise her child or face losing him to the state.
She moved in with her mother and the three became one tight-knit unit.
Emmanuel attends school at the ARC, where Nuñez said he has made impressive progress. Emmanuel can’t talk much, but can now count to 20 in English and 10 in Spanish. He’s quick to share a hug or high-five with a stranger and doesn’t like being far from his mother, who seems to have endless patience.
On a recent night, Emmanuel squealed with laughter as he raced from one side of the living room to the other, flicking the lights on and off. A nurse chased him back and forth and his mother simply carried on her conversations in the dark.
“You see how he is,” Nuñez said. “He’s a bit little excited.”
The family waited for years for a handicap-accessible apartment. About a year ago, they moved into an apartment with a ramp at the door and open shower. Still, the many scuff marks along the walls make it apparent that the apartment isn’t perfect.
The kitchen is largely inaccessible for someone in a wheelchair. The cabinets are too high, and Nuñez resorts to using a long kitchen knife to reach for things. The refrigerator poses another challenge: it takes a three-point turn in her motorized wheelchair to open the door and pull up close enough to reach.
Then there’s the backyard, which opens directly to a park where Emmanuel likes to run and play. But Nuñez can’t force her wheelchair down one step that separates their small concrete porch from the playground.
“It’s hard for me,” she said. “This is not accessible.”
More worrisome for Nuñez is the fact that the park, just like their front door, opens to a busy road. She is terrified Emmanuel will run out one day and get hurt; she dreams of a home with a fenced-in yard.
Just like his mom, Emmanuel loves to be out. They like to go to the park, to the mall and for pizza. Emmanuel can put away four slices, his mother said.
But getting to any of these places is a challenge. Nuñez relies on a transportation service for people with disabilities. Wait times can be long and the trips even longer, since Nuñez’s son goes to school in Florida City and there can be many stops in between. The cost, $7 round trip, is another factor. Getting to church on Sundays with her mother, who is deeply religious, has become impossible.
“She arrives late to church because she has to wait for the bus,” Padilla said.
Still, Nuñez manages to make it to Miami Heights Elementary almost every day to volunteer. She makes copies there, answers phone calls and helps with fundraisers. The teachers there know Nuñez for her sense of humor and patience, said first grade teacher and PTA president Diane Smith. So they don’t hesitate to pitch in when Nuñez needs a few dollars to pay for transportation back home. The PTA recently agreed to pay for 40 trips for her.
“I know she thinks about finances a lot. Sometimes she can’t eat because she doesn’t even have $3.50 for the van,” Smith said.
Nuñez wishes for an accessible van so she can reliably go wherever she wants, whenever she wants. She smiles at the thought of driving, the idea of being able to bring her mother and son to Disney World and being able to all ride together in one car.
“We want to be together, the three of us,” she said.
▪ 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 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.