Brenda López is determined to see her 8-year-old son Angel walk and she hasn’t let anything — not even Hurricane Maria — stand in the way.
When the Category 4 hurricane struck Puerto Rico last year, López and her three children took shelter in her father’s home in a rural area near the island’s west coast.
The family huddled together in one room on the first floor. They could hear windows exploding upstairs and walls crashing down. When the storm passed, the roof was gone. Power lines and tree branches littered the highway, cutting the family off from the nearby town of Añasco. For weeks, unable to return to home, López slept on a recliner under the stars with Angel on her lap.
As the days passed, López began to worry that the little boy — who has cerebral palsy and cannot walk on his own or talk — would lose some of the progress they had worked so hard to achieve. She tried to mimic what she’d seen Angel’s physical therapist do, massaging Angel’s legs and carefully helping him to stand. As soon as the physical therapy clinic reopened, López borrowed a car to take Angel. She had to weave around the debris strewn across the highway.
“It was frightening, but I said, ‘It’s for my child.’ You do whatever it takes, right?” López recalled. “Therapy is something Angel needs to strengthen his legs, his back, and my hope that one day I’ll see him walk depends on that.”
Hurricane Maria wasn’t the end of the family’s troubles, however. Puerto Rico shuttered more than 250 schools after the storm and the education department scrambled to relocate students and staff. Angel was transferred to a new school, but the special education classroom was cramped, the air conditioning barely worked and the bathroom was too small for his wheelchair to enter. Worst of all, Angel didn’t have a teacher.
López and the parents of Angel’s classmates filed formal complaints with the school district and spent weeks trying to get a special education teacher and teacher’s aides for their children. It took a month for the school district to fully staff Angel’s classroom.
Even before the hurricane, life in Puerto Rico wasn’t easy for Angel’s family. López is a single mom who lives with her children in a cramped, unpainted cinder-block house in a rural area outside Añasco. Bats have somehow managed to get inside the walls and the sound of their skittering terrifies Angel at night. López hasn’t been able to get a job because she’s frequently taking Angel to physical therapy and to doctor’s appointments. She also can’t afford a car so she depends on friends and family for rides.
Now, López has decided to move her family to Tampa, where her mother lives and where she hopes she will have an easier time getting Angel the help he needs.
She could use some help buying plane tickets for the family and medical equipment for Angel. She can’t afford to get Angel a new wheelchair, so he’s using one that he’s already outgrown. She also can’t afford to buy a bathing chair for the shower. When it’s time to give Angel a bath, López holds him with one arm and washes him with the other. For López, even paying for the diapers Angel uses is a struggle.
Angel needs a new wheelchair, a bath chair, leg braces, a gait trainer to help him walk and a stander to help him stand. López would also like a gift card to use for food and diapers.
“After Hurricane Maria, many special needs families on the island continue to struggle daily,” said Luis De Rosa, outreach director at Dynamic Community Development Corp., the nonprofit that nominated Angel for Wish Book. Dynamic has helped Puerto Ricans who were displaced by Hurricane Maria start new lives in South Florida, providing families with gift cards, medical care and a range of other support services.
Thanks to his mother’s determination and the help of his teachers and therapists, Angel is slowly making progress. When the little boy first enrolled in school at the age of 4, any noise — music, cars driving by, even the sounds of children playing — had been enough to send him into a fit of screaming and crying. With time, he learned to socialize with his classmates and became the sweet, loving boy at school that he had always been at home. Angel’s shy smile has won the hearts of his teachers and therapists.
Angel can now stand if he’s braced against the wall and take a step with the help of his physical therapist.
“When we first started working with Angel, getting him to stand up against the wall, it was terrible,” said Ana Lebrón, Angel’s physical therapist at the nonprofit Centro Ayani clinic in Puerto Rico. “His body would shake and he couldn’t handle it, he couldn’t handle anything.”
Lebrón and Lopez hope that some day Angel will be able to walk with crutches or braces.
“He’s a child who, the only thing he does is spread love,” López told the Herald last August in Puerto Rico. “He’s my life. And if I have to keep fighting for him, for whatever it is, I’ll do whatever it takes so that he has his things and so that he can keep moving forward.”
How to help
Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. 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