Wish Book

The greatest gift: Wish Book readers help those in need

It’s 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 — she’s now devouring Princess Electra Out of Barburee.

It’s 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 pharmacy’s 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.

“That’s 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. He’s 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 Elin’s story contributed enough money to provide him with the life-changing chair.

“He is super happy,” said his mother, Maria Madrigal. “And we, his family, are happy for him because we see him more independent and feeling good about himself.”

Elin is now able to play with his friends without mom and dad hanging around. He also is able to roam stores and look at merchandise without help.

Last year, Aaron Harrigan unbottled his grief to tell his story of losing his fiancé, Antoinette Sutton, just a week after she gave birth to their daughter, Liana. Sutton died from childbirth complications and a staph infection, at just 25.

Harrigan, then 27 and in remission for lymphoma, was left heartbroken and a single dad. Without Sutton’s income, he and Liana became homeless for a short time, before being able to move into subsidized housing in Homestead.

Harrigan’s wish was for a safe car to take Liana to her pediatrician visits and to attend college classes. He got the Sonata he wished for, a 2007 model donated by Lehman Hyundai. And high school classmates who mobilized on Facebook helped collect needed baby toys and clothes.

“It’s still a struggle; every time I look at Liana I see her mother,” Harrigan said at his home while Liana was being fed by Harrigan’s mother.

“But I’m thankful for the car,” he said. “This year has been much better than last year. I know I have to keep trying for my daughter.”

Last year’s donations helped some people get much needed joy in the form of simpler wishes: Michael Jordan sneakers, electric drums, and a Christmas tree.

In December 1982, The Miami Herald published its first Wish Book to offer its readers the opportunity to make a difference in a neighbor’s life. Since then, readers of The Miami Herald and Spanish-language El Nuevo Herald have donated several million dollars to help some of the neediest people in our community.

“What is totally unique and a lot different than any other charity is the way we present a person and need and humanize it,” Landsberg said. “People see an individual need, relate to that need and are compelled to help.”

In early October, more than 600 non-profit social agencies in South Florida were contacted to nominate candidates for Wish Book. The candidates are people who have been helped by the agency, but who have needs that go beyond the resources of that agency.

The Wish Book team screens the nominees. This year there are 180, representing more than 900 people. It’s the largest pool ever.

In the weeks leading up to New Year’s Day, some of the nominees’ stories will be featured in The Herald and El Nuevo Herald and on the newspapers’ websites.

They will include: Moise Brutus, a triple amputee, who nearly died in a motorcycle accident. He’s learned to ride a bicycle, but needs a handicap-adapted vehicle in order to attend college.

Layla Paul, a 15-month old girl, has a complex heart defect: hypoplastic left heart syndrome. She already has undergone five surgeries, including two on her heart and one to implant a pacemaker. She went into heart failure on May 26th and has been in the hospital ever since. Her parents hope she will get a life-saving heart transplant.

And there’s Dannielle Jones, 18, who has been bounced around from relative to relative until landing in foster care last year. Through it all, she has studied hard to get good grades. In the spring, she graduated from high school at age17 and spent the summer working to support herself and save money for college books. She’s now a freshman at Florida Atlantic University, pursuing a career in medicine, and with no family support could use some help.

Ernest Leo wants people to know that he’s thankful for the help he and his daughter received through Wish Book. He said the warehouse job enabled him to stabilize his life and move into a safer apartment with two bedrooms. In September, he married a woman he met while studying at college.

“I explain to my daughter this is a great country,” he said. “If you stay positive, you can have a better future and a better life. People have helped us here and one day I hope I can pay it back.”

Miami Herald writer Alexandra Leon contributed to this report.