MIAMI (CBSMiami) — This is a Christmas tale that will melt your heart and break it as well. A new found family of CBS4 Super Kids gathered to meet for the first time to celebrate the holidays and treasure of a girl. As child advocates, teachers and community leaders will tell you, Deborah Perez is an inspirational young woman who is a pied piper for children all year round.
But Deborah’s smile and dedication to helping children through Miami-Dade’s Big Brothers/Big Sisters program belies a childhood that was dark. Growing up, there were many years where there was no Christmas, no joy. In fact, not even the basics as she and her 3 siblings were left home alone.
“Sometimes without water, without electricity,” Deborah recalled while sitting down with CBS4 Chief Investigative Reporter Michele Gillen. “A lot of times it was really scary,” she reflected.
At the age of 10 years old, she said, she was removed by the state of Florida from her family. But instead of being sent to live in foster care and be split up from her brother and sisters, a true life Santa Claus stepped forward to rescue the children from a potential dark abyss. The children were only told he was their “grandfather.” An elderly man who had never been married or had his own children, he devoted his life to Deborah and her siblings.
“My grandfather is one of the most remarkable persons I have ever met, in my entire life,” she told Gillen.
But she was scarred by so many secrets, she said, it took yet another stranger to help her rebuild her life. That stranger, a Big Sister from Miami-Dade Big Brothers/Big Sisters is a woman Deborah absolutely treasures today.
When she stepped into a young Deborah’s life, “For once in my life I had somebody who was by my side, who was consistent, not coming and going, and just experiencing all the things I did as a child,” said Deborah. She described her ‘Big Sister’ as nothing less than a guardian angel.
But even with all that caring, adolescence was tough as she had to move neighborhoods, swapping Kendall for Little Havana and had to change schools.
She now regrets acting out but realizes it was a chapter that finally led to her finding her path and inner strength.
She explained she simply ‘woke up’ the day she learned that the kind stranger who raised her, was not her biological grandfather but just a good man who wanted to make a difference in her life. And he did and that moment she knew she had to make him proud.
“That really changed me. It was pivotal that moment when I found out that my grandfather really was not my biological grandfather. I shared the news with my ‘Big Sister’.
In that moment I was so amazed that somebody could stop what they were doing and so late in life give up everything, sacrifice everything he had just to insure that we were safe, that we could live to see another day, that there was a tomorrow. So in the moment, that was when I really decided that I cannot live my life like this and something has to change. I need to be better at school. Be more involved, I need to come out of the closet as far as secrets go and share and to experience the world,” recounted Deborah. “I couldn’t give up. Giving up was not an option. I had to make it.”
Indeed, she turned her life and grades around. She would graduate from Booker T. Washington High School with honors. She was elected to be President of her Student Government. Ultimately, she was courted to go to the University of Miami by none other than President Donna Shalala.
Now her greatest dream has come true working for Big Brothers/Big Sisters and running their continuing education program, helping give other children’s dreams flight.
“I really found out what my passion was, that education is what I wanted to be in,” she exclaimed. “I want to be a professor one day and be at a University level and help students transition from academics into the community. I hope to be a part of that change.”
Putting on her elf’s hat, CBS4’s Michele Gillen delighted in thinking up how she could have Deborah tap into the Christmas and family she never had. It didn’t take long to realize how valuable a Super Kid Christmas reunion would be.
One by one they turned out to meet Deborah and feel a part of holiday sweetness that many never experienced.
“I’m excited to meet them and excited to see how we can work together,” Deborah told Gillen.
Super Kid Brandon Burke flew in from his Congressional internship in the nation’s capital as he was working in the office of Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Shultz. She was the mentor CBS4 News had surprised him with and she has opened doors and her heart to him.
Michael Williams of Florida Memorial University arrived and shared his dreams of greatness and inventions. He is excited to continue his relationship with mentor Barrington Irving who was the one man in the world he told Gillen he hoped to someday meet.
And Zelda of Mast Academy came bearing her famous smile and stories of making change for others. She had just aced a tough calculus test but would not miss the reunion.
But the most appreciated guest announced himself with a chant of “Ho-Ho-Ho” and Santa emerged. As the party and gift giving unfolded and the CBS4 Super Kids took the first step of being family, Deborah offered these words to all.
“It makes me honored to be part of this Super Kid community, each of us is doing individual things.” The gift of this holiday? “How can we work together to make the world a better place.” Santa smiled. He has no doubt they will.