The holiday spirit came after all to the Rabinowitz family of Coconut Creek.
Young Isabella, 8, was in the hospital before the holiday — hardly the place to be in December as neighborhoods glow with decorations and thoughts turn to gift exchanges and seasonal gatherings.
But Isabella has Rett Syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder that causes seizures and affects motor skills, speech and mobility.
The Miami Herald told the family’s story in early December as part of its 2014 Wish Book series. Claudia Rabinowitz, who had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and her husband, Lawrence, adopted Isabella as a baby from Guatemala. At about 18 months, Isabella started to lose some functions she had mastered like grasping toys and speaking.
Over the years, as she has grown, mobility has become particularly difficult, given that Claudia is recovering from a double mastectomy and Lawrence, a nurse, works 12-hour shifts. The simple act of bathing can sometimes require three people to lift 94-pound Isabella from her specially built tub.
Readers were touched by their story, and the “reaction was awesome,” said Wendy Bellack, director of the Family Network on Disabilities of Broward County, the agency that nominated the family for Wish Book.
Donors provided lifts to help their daughter get around, including a Hoyer Lift to ease Isabella in and out of the tub. “They were so thankful and grateful. It was wonderful for her mom to know that when she got home, mom could get out and spend some money on some much needed clothing and items for Isabella,” Bellack said. “The bath chair was incredible. Now they can bathe her properly.”
The Herald published 34 Wish Book stories since November. Donations were up by 8 percent over last year at the same time, with a total of $317,231 so far. Donations are accepted throughout the year, and there are still about 130 families that will be helped as a result of the 2014 series — the 33rd year of the Herald’s involvement with the program, which is managed by Miami Herald Charities.
In addition, Give Miami Day donations almost doubled this year from $4,384 in 2013 to $8,342. But Give Miami Day, a popular social media drive spread among many charities, is a little different in that its donors tend to give to the cause, while the Herald stories connect with readers on a personal level and the contributions are more often aligned with the stories, explains Roberta DiPietro, Wish Book coordinator.
One of the most touching outcomes centered on farm worker Lucus Atjum, a single dad who now raises four young children in Florida City after his wife was killed in a car accident in July. The family received bunk beds from an anonymous donor via Herald news partner WLRN-91.3 FM’s story. Bay Oaks Seniors Home pledged to provide birthday gifts to the children, who range in age from 4 to 8, throughout the year. At Christmas, the Atjum’s family living room was awash in gifts as dad and the children beamed.
Gifts that came in for the numerous families included 16 motorized wheelchairs, ramps, hospital beds, hearing aids, handicap lifts, laptops, an accessible van and a car, financial assistance, roof repairs, termite extermination, health and car insurance and, of course, toys, bicycles and other holiday gifts.
“The overwhelming response that we receive shows that strangers caring for others can really make meaningful changes in people’s lives,” DiPietro said. “Something as simple as donors coming through to pay for health insurance for a 5-year-old, which will enable him to remain a candidate for a desperately needed heart transplant, will have lasting implications.”
Take 6-year-old Emanuel Diaz-Mairena, hit by a car while playing ball with his brother Richard, 8, and neighborhood friends outside their Northwest Miami-Dade home. Emanuel was given a tablet, as was his brother, who was traumatized by the accident, by the Melton family of Coconut Grove. The gifts will help with their schooling. The family also got a bedroom set from a donor.
“My daughter Olivia, who is 26, was hit by a car when she was 5 and suffered some brain injury, and that story got to me,” Mabel Melton said. “I felt awful for the family and was very moved. It made me realize that everyday items that we take for granted, like an iPad for example, really can have a life-altering impact on a young child and their family. So, honestly, this was so personal. All the stories that are written touch your heart, but this one touched my heart especially so.”
(Olivia, by the way, is doing fine, Melton said. “Having a child suffer a brain injury, you just don’t know. Thank goodness I had people to turn to, like at Jackson.”)
Nathan Hagood, a gifted North Miami Beach Senior High engineering student who builds robots from scratch from recycled materials like scrap metal and plastic received a scholarship offer from Florida International University.
And Jungle Island, the interactive zoological park on Watson Island, donated complimentary admission to the attraction and its “Wild Holidays” celebration in December for all Wish Book recipients and their families — an in-kind donation valued at about $20,000.
“This year’s series was perhaps one of our most diverse,” said Nancy San Martin, the Miami Herald’s interactive editor. “We managed to capture personal tales from the various sectors of our community that highlighted many needs, but more importantly, showcased the human strength. That is what Wish Book is all about: helping those in need overcome obstacles so they can thrive.”
Guarantee Floridian Pest and GA Construction Group responded to Carmina Peralte’s needs. The 80-year-old former legal aid worker suffered a couple of accidents, and her home in North Miami has a leaky roof and termites — an unhealthy combo for her and the adult daughter she cares for in the home she works to keep tidy. Both companies vowed to make the necessary repairs.
“After more than 30 years, the Miami Herald Wish Book continues to make strides for our neighbors in need,” said Miami Herald Publisher Alexandra Villoch.
She cites another example.
“Each Wish Book story is special — and they are representative of so many other people in need who are helped by the generosity of our readers. One example is Maria DeFrance and her daughter, Sara Crossley, who is 10 years old. Sara suffers from cystic fibrosis. She lost her father this past year, and their trailer home was condemned and demolished, and the family’s only car was junked. Maria desperately needed a car to take Sara to her doctor appointments.
“Through an anonymous good Samaritan, the family is finding a new place to live — and thanks to our Wish Book story, United Auto Insurance called in and is giving them a car from their fleet with one year’s insurance and will maintain it in case it has any problems,” Villoch said.
“It is outcomes such as this one that make Wish Book such an incredibly valued part of what we do here at the Miami Herald.”
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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 your mobile phone, text WISH to 41444.
For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook@MiamiHerald.com.
Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.