Every year, Virginia Dassaw makes new additions to her “obituary wall.”
The weathered memorial has grown by six in the last four years with the life stories of both her parents, three siblings and niece.
The obituaries are pasted next to that of her sister’s, who died on Christmas Eve in 2002. She left behind six boys — five of which have intellectual disabilities — for Dassaw, or “Auntie Gin,” to raise as her own, in addition to her own son.
“It’s been an adventure; so much love in this, as well as grief,” the 64-year-old Dassaw said. “Now, 16 years later, everything is OK. It hasn’t been easy.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
One of those struggles, Dassaw says, has been transportation. The single “auntie” of seven has had to teach her special-needs nephews — now 26, 28, 30, 32 and 34 — how to use the county bus system after her old, used cars would leave her stranded.
When the boys were students, their teachers had to step in, taking them to and from school when Dassaw didn’t have a way to. And when their bikes were stolen, the school administrators raised funds to buy new ones.
But that all changed Monday when a new Honda Odyssey minivan pulled up into her driveway in West Eureka. Leaping out of the minivan was former Miami Marlins outfielder Juan Pierre, who handed a sobbing Dassaw the keys to her surprise new ride.
With her face buried in her palms, the weeping woman leaned over, lifted her hands in the air and then pinched herself.
“I must be on the ‘Price is Right,’ “ Dassaw said wailing. Beside her was her 26-year-old nephew, Kevin Roundtree. Both his hands clasped his head as tears cascaded down his cheeks. “You didn’t know I needed a car, but Jesus knew I needed a car.”
Dassaw honked the horn twice as Roundtree and his brothers hopped inside: “We’re in heaven! We’re in heaven.”
The gift was one of seven given to families in need this year by the Miami Marlins and AutoNation. The “completely paid-off” vehicle came with a $100 gift card for gas.
“This is what life is all about,” Pierre told the Miami Herald. “The lady has been dealt a hand with six kids with disabilities. It’s something that they really need. They wanted it, but more importantly, they needed it. Their faces said it all.”
Dassaw first caught the baseball team’s attention in 2013 when Roundtree, the youngest of her six nephews, beat out 23,000 other Special Olympics athletes, including 3,000 from Miami-Dade alone. He was named the organization’s athlete of the year. Roundtree’s story appeared in the Miami Herald, shining light on Dassaw’s need.
Though Roundtree’s speech is hard to comprehend, his tears weren’t.
“Happy tears; I’m so happy. We needed that very badly,” he said. “I want to be all day with my auntie in the new car, and show my family the new car.”
Panting with joy, Roundtree’s brother, 28-year-old Markeith Bell, smiled as he paced back and forth.
“I know my momma is smiling down from heaven,” Bell said pointing at Monday’s clear skies. “My grandma is smiling too from up there; the whole family is.”
To make ends meet, Dassaw has a job as a cook at a nearby Popeyes Chicken while her adult nephews work or stay home. She says the new car “is like putting icing on a cake; like finishing up the ingredients of a meal.”
On Monday, the matriarch, who also cares for her disabled brother, prepped to start her shift in her dream mobile — a vehicle that doesn’t need a key, but starts at the push of a button.
“We were struggling to get from square one to square two,” she said. “But now, we can get to square three.”