Miami-Dade County

South Florida Thanksgiving stories: Giving thanks Miami style

GRATITUDE: Joel Diaz and Belkis Johana Mairena share happy moments with their sons Emanuel Diaz-Mairena, 6, left center, and Richard Diaz-Mairena, 8, who holds family dog, Jack, on Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014 in their rented home in Miami.
In July, Emanuel was hit by a car while playing ball in the street with Richard and friends. Emanuel suffered traumatic brain injury, was in a six-week coma, and had a seizure. He has recovered more than his doctors expected. The family is thankful to have their sons with them and for the doctors at Jackson Memorial Hospital.
GRATITUDE: Joel Diaz and Belkis Johana Mairena share happy moments with their sons Emanuel Diaz-Mairena, 6, left center, and Richard Diaz-Mairena, 8, who holds family dog, Jack, on Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014 in their rented home in Miami. In July, Emanuel was hit by a car while playing ball in the street with Richard and friends. Emanuel suffered traumatic brain injury, was in a six-week coma, and had a seizure. He has recovered more than his doctors expected. The family is thankful to have their sons with them and for the doctors at Jackson Memorial Hospital. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Thanksgiving brings gratitude for friends, for family, for a day off from work — unless you’re in some sectors of retail, but that’s another story.

For the Diaz-Mairena family, who live in a rented Northwest Miami-Dade home, Thanksgiving is special this year: Their youngest is on the mend after a horrific car accident.

In July, Emanuel Diaz-Mairena, 6, was playing ball with his brother, Richard, 8, and some neighbor pals in front of the family home. When he went to retrieve the ball, a driver didn’t see him. The impact led to a traumatic brain injury. Emanuel spent days in a coma at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

But now Emanuel is recovering at home. Though there is a long way to go — stiffness still plagues the left side of his body and he’s not yet able to return to school — his improvement has been significant and exceeded doctors’ expectations.

“My son, and that he’s here with us and it’s a miracle, that’s what I would be grateful for,” said his father, Joel Diaz. “We are super appreciative with the doctors at Jackson.” The Diaz-Mairena family are featured in the Miami Herald’s first 2014 Wish Book story in Thursday’s Local & State section.

Along with Diaz’s wife, Belkis Diaz-Mairena, the couple share a message for the holiday. “We wish everybody a happy Thanksgiving and to keep an eye on their kids. One second can be one thing and another second can be another.”

Many other Miami-Dade residents also shared what they are thankful for this season with Neighbors. Here are some of their thoughts:

Conquering life’s challenges

“I am thankful for all that Coral Gables has given me. A great job where I can do public service every day, a happy home four blocks from work, and a therapy center where my two (autistic)children receive therapy that is making a tremendous difference in their lives,” said Craig Leen, Coral Gables’ city attorney.

“I am thankful for my super wife, Ana, who grew up in Coral Gables and is a child psychiatrist, and works with students every day in the surroundings schools. I am thankful for my daughter Alex, who smiles all the time, and sees the world in her own unique way. And I am thankful for my son Pierce, who is full of energy and curiosity, and is literally here today because of a miracle procedure performed in utero by doctors who are residents of Coral Gables,” Leen, 39, said.

“This community has been amazing to my family, and for that I give thanks.”

Cross-cultural cuisine

Ana Sanchez, 20, is set to attend two separate Thanksgiving Day gatherings, one with her family and one with her friends.

First up: a Cuban-style Thanksgiving feast with her family at their Miami Gardens home: black beans, rice and pork. After the feast, she’ll migrate over to a gathering with friends.

Sanchez says she’s thankful to spend the holiday with loved ones, and thankful for her family and friends.

“I am thankful for everything positive in my life,” said Sanchez, who works in Miami Lakes.

Like Sanchez, Miami Lakes Vice Mayor Manny Cid’s Thanksgiving table will include a Cuban twist.

“It’s a mix at my house,” Cid said. “You have the traditional American combined with the Cuban culture.”

Cid’s family plans on gathering together for a meal that will include turkey, pork, sweet potatoes and yucca.

Cid said his health, family and children all top his thankful list, along with being able to serve his community.

“[I am] thankful every day that God has blessed me with the privilege of serving the residents of the town of Miami Lakes,” Cid said.

From the mouth of babes

Matias Keymer, 7, Matias Blanco, 7, and Fernando Diez, 6, go to school together at the Key Biscayne K-8 Center.

The boys are grateful for everything in the world. Really. From the cereal they were eating to the actual basketball they were playing with in the community center.

The boys screamed over each other to list all the things they were thankful for this holiday season.

“I’m grateful for my family and all the presidents,” Matias Keymer said.

“I’m thankful for radios, baseball bats and soccer,” Fernando said.

“I’m thankful for turkey, friends, God and my family,” Matias Blanco said.

Proud of policing

Alfred Lewers, Miami Gardens’ assistant police chief, said he’s thankful to serve in the city since the department started in 2007 and for the support he’s received.

“I am consistently amazed by the level of support the citizens of Miami Gardens, the elected officials and the senior management team of the city gives the police department,” Lewers, 50, said.

The husband and father of four is also grateful for his family as he prepares for Thanksgiving.

“I’ve been married to the same woman for 25 years and I have four very healthy children. That’s what I’m thankful for,” Lewers said.

Props to family

Oliver Gilbert, the mayor of Miami Gardens, said that he’s thankful for his family this holiday season.

“As I get older I learn to not just value my parents, but to also be a good dad to my son,” Gilbert, 41, said.

On the political side, he said he’s grateful for his position and the ability to lead his hometown.

“In Miami Gardens we’re making strides and I’m thankful for the success and the momentum this year,” Gilbert said.

Eric Tullberg, 66, a retired engineer and chair of the Miami-Dade Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, is a 31-year resident of Palmetto Bay. He’s grateful for “my family and my health. It’s the stock phrase, but it’s true.”

Myriam Restrepo, a typist and imaging technician in the Key Biscayne clerk’s office, said she is especially grateful for her family. She is the oldest of five siblings.

“We try to get together just the five of us as often as we can. No kids, no parents, no husbands or wives,” she said. “I keep the corks from the bottles of wine we drink. We each sign and date them.”

She is also grateful for her 15-year-old grandson.

“He’s so good to me. He’s the most incredible guy.”


Ray Breslin, resident of the Collins Park neighborhood in Miami Beach, said he’s thankful for having a place like the Beach to live with his partner of 36 years, Patrick Pecoraro — with whom he won’t get married until they can do it in Miami Beach.

“I am thankful that I had the foresight to move to Miami Beach in 1998 with my partner, Patrick, to become part of one of the most progressive cities in the world,” he said. “A place where Patrick and I have enjoyed a registered domestic partnership since 2002; a place that I can live, work and play in without owning a car and be just a block from the beach.”

Back to basics

Carol Keys, a council member in North Miami, is grateful for the basics heading into the Thanksgiving holiday.

“I have good health, good family and plenty of food on my table,” Keys, 61, said.

With a newly elected mayor and multiple development projects in the works, Keys is thankful for the outlook of North Miami’s future.

“Politically we have a city that looks like it’s moving in a positive direction,” Keys said.

The bigger picture

Bal Harbour resident Brian Mulheron says he is thankful for the chance to spend time with those he is close.

“It’s a time to get together and thank God, especially with all these tragedies. It’s great to be able to get together with family and friends and to celebrate Thanksgiving,” he said. “There are many families that can’t do that because of what is happening in the world and this country. I am thankful for that.”

Fresh start

In 2011, Tony Brown was laid off from his job in Miami-Dade County’s public works department. He spent nine months without a job and is now superintendent of public works in Key Biscayne.

“I’m thankful for the opportunities and people I’ve been able to encounter this year,” he said. “I’m grateful to the individuals who helped me along the way and provided insight on different aspects of life and work. I’m not a millionaire, but I feel like I’m wealthy because of the people in my life.”

Three years ago, Richard Perez found himself unemployed. He went back to school to earn his bachelor’s degree in recreation and sports management.

Perez, 33, is now the recreation supervisor of the Key Biscayne Community Center. Because his job offers tuition reimbursement, he is able to go back to school in January to get his master’s in public administration.

“My family supported me and put up the financial burden,” he said. “I’m grateful for this job and to be able to repay the debt.”

Newly elected El Portal Councilman Harold Mathis says he is blessed, too.

“I am most thankful for my family and others in my life, who inspire me to do better each and every day,” he said. “Tomorrow is not promised to anyone.”

Nature’s bounty

West Miami resident Patty Harris says she is grateful for her surroundings.

“I am especially thankful for the many, many beautiful trees that line the streets of West Miami,” she said. “Back in the late 1940’s when West Miami was incorporated, the city founders had enough foresight to plant mahogany, black olives, and live oaks along our city’s streets. Now the trees are mature and tall and shade the sidewalks giving West Miami a charming garden neighborhood atmosphere in its very urban setting.”

The public’s voice

“As I look around me, I realize that I am truly blessed indeed,” Doral Councilwoman Christi Fraga said. “I am thankful to be healthy and well. I have an incredible family who didn’t think twice about supporting my calling to serve the public. I have been blessed with a wonderful husband, who shows me his love everyday with his dedication and support. I am thankful and blessed to live in a nation where I am free to voice my opinions and serve the public.”

She is also grateful for the residents who make their voices heard. “As I near the end of a very busy year, I am thankful for their emails, for their phone calls, for their praises and their criticism,” Fraga said.

Lil’ Abner bash

In Sweetwater, the Lil’ Abner Foundation hosts a Thanksgiving Bash annually for the residents to enjoy the holiday spirit earlier in the month. This year’s event was Nov. 8.

“We send postcards to every resident and put banners all over the city,” said Francisco “Paco” Ruiz, the foundation’s program director and a former Sweetwater resident.

The event is a festival-style family day with kids’ rides and activities, food, toy giveaways and turkey raffles.

About 2,500 residents attended this year, and the foundation raises about $10,000, which helps offset the costs to host the annual event and to keep it free for residents.

Community building

Elizabeth Wasserman, 47, co-program coordinator for the local Blessings in Backpack program, which gives food for the weekend to school children who qualify for free and reduced lunch, has lived in Pinecrest for 13 years.

“I’m grateful for the community of Pinecrest. They’re here to help,” she said. “When I started Blessings in a Backpack with my children and my best friend, without hesitation, people were giving us money, giving us time. That’s what I’m thankful for the most. There’s so much evil in the world, and I’m just so happy to be here. And be among people that do generally care and want to do so much to make this a better community and a better world.”

Julia Magnani, 47, a resident of Surfside, is thankful for her supportive husband and their two daughters. She is also thankful to be able to accomplish her civic duties for the residents in Bay Harbor, Bal Harbour and Surfside. Magnani is a real estate agent who also runs the Surfside Civic Association and is a former president of the PTA in Ruth K. Broad Bay Harbor K-8 Center.

“The biggest thing I would say I am thankful for is the people who are always there helping and supporting to accomplish the goals for the school, community, children and teachers,” said Magnani. “Without them, it would be very difficult.”

Her goal is to unite the towns in the 33154 zip code. Last year, $600,000 was raised to rebuild the local playground. This year, Magnani is raising money for a computer lab.

Health and leadership

Sweetwater Commissioner Jose Bergouignan said he is grateful for everyone’s health this year and for the community’s growth and prosperity with Florida International University.

Mayor Jose M. Diaz said he is grateful to his residents and the progress he has overseen.

“We are grateful for being able to represent our residents and improve the quality of life of our residents,” he said.

Miami Herald reporters Paradise Afshar, Alexi Cardona, Crystal Chew, Lance Dixon, Lola Duffort, Joey Flechas, Monique O. Madan, Rebecca Piccardo and Rodolfo Roman contributed to this report. Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.

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