MIAMI (CBSMiami) — A grandfather wipes away a tear as his beloved granddaughter, Cassandra Gonzalez tenderly hugs him. Jose Gonzalez is blind and Cassandra willingly serves as his eyes and guide in life.
The 17-year old is one of the most loving, unselfish teenagers, you might ever meet. She and her grandpa, as she calls him, carry broken hearts. Her grandmother, Victoria, who she long cared for recently died following a heart attack.
“Coming home from work and not being able to kiss or hug her, it just hurt me,” Cassandra told CBS4’s Michele Gillen as they sat together outside her Homestead home under a warm February sky.
Cassandra’s pull to her grandparents is so strong because they raised her, rescued her, from when she was a baby.
“Well, this all happened because when I was 11-months old my dad killed my mom,” Cassandra shared.
Cassandra cherishes the few photos she has of her mother who was just 18 years old when she lost her life. There’s one picture of her mom dressed in pink and smiling to the camera at her baby shower. Another is the sonogram showing the first image of Cassandra.
Cassandra was 7-years old when she learned the truth of what had happened when she was a baby and too young to remember. She learned that her father was incarcerated and that the man and woman who raised her were really her grandparents, not her birth parents.
She said she is grateful to them. Even in her teenage years, through their serious illnesses, she rarely left their side. Every free moment after school and on weekends, she worked to help support them.
“I wouldn’t care for having fun or going out because my grandparents are the most important thing to me,” Cassandra revealed.
Through it all, she has studied away in her grandparent’s humble home, making top grades and dreaming of someday having a career in the world of hospitality where she can create dreams for others.
“I love being around people, I love going to hotels, I love helping others,” the teenager explained and said her dream is to someday, somehow, attend FIU’s renowned Chaplin School of Hospitality.
That tickled the imagination of Michele Gillen who thought; why not introduce her to the king of hospitality, a master of culinary cuisine and the Founder and Director of the Food Channel’s South Beach Wine and Food Festival, Lee Brian Schrager.
“Let’s go meet her!” Schrager enthused as he first greeted Gillen in the midst of the festivals Fit and Fun as a Family event at Jungle Island.
Upon learning Cassandra’s story, Schrager organized a feast of a day for the girl who never asks for anything for herself.
“Hi, it’s an honor to meet you!” Cassandra beamed shaking his hand as he gave her a warm embrace.
Schrager, whose festival has raised 20 million dollars for the School of Hospitality over the past 13 years, offered his guidance and extended a helping hand.
“Do you like to cook?” he asked, a trained chef himself.
“I love cooking!” Cassandra shared with him. “I love hospitality and tourism. I’ve been thinking all my life about going to FIU.”
A dream met with a spontaneous invite.
“We just opened up a new teaching program this week with the funds from the festival. We built this beautiful new campus and I will take you for lunch one day and show you around,” Schrager offered as he she shared insight from an amazing career.
“When you love what you do and you do what you love, it’s really not work. And that’s what I have found. I never think of it as going to work. I never call what I do going to work because I love it too much,” revealed Schrager, who has served as Vice President of Corporate Communications and National Events for Southern Wine and Spirits for over a decade.
Also on this adventure, Cassandra’s school outreach counselor and one of her biggest champions, Maria Fey Rivera, who works with the non-profit Communities in Schools of Miami.
“She has gone through so much pain and loss and instead of giving and saying ‘Oh my god my life is horrible’, she gets back up dusts herself off and continues. I’m supposed to be the role model but she’s a role model to me. I mean she has fallen so many times, she just lost the most important part of her life and instead of saying my life is done, that’ s it, she says ‘no’, she gets up and keeps going,” Rivera told Gillen.
With lofty dreams of running restaurants, today Cassandra supports her granddad working at Taco Bell.
With the right education, Schrager encouraged “You are working at Taco bell today? You could be running it in a matter of years! That’s what hard work gets you.”
He also shared a personal reflection. “There is such respect in this industry for young people. I was working when I was 13 and 14 years old, fortunately I didn’t have some of the heartaches that you had. But you know what, my parents were very convinced that no one gave them anything and no one was going to give their kids anything. And it was the hard work that really helped me and my brothers do what we are doing today.”
Speaking of family, he explained, “There is a passion in people that work within the hospitality industry that doesn’t exist outside. You will develop a family and that family that you unfortunately don’t have you are going to recreate many times over in your career.”
Counting himself in as “a new mentor” for Cassandra, he escorted her and the team into the venues of celebrity chefs. The DJ spotting Cassandra intoned over loud speakers, “Congratulations Cassandra. She is the CBS4 Super Kid. Cassandra is coming through! Clear the aisle!”
Then it was on to carte blanche access to the festivals dream-makers, the chefs.
Everywhere she was lost in smiles, even while crickets were cooked up by Chef Andrew Zimmern, and hundreds of children in the audience roared.
One by one, Cassandra was embraced by top chefs who opened their hearts to her. Upon hearing about her journey and dream, Chef RLI, who counts being Dwyane Wade’s personal chef as one of his greatest joys, was so impressed. His tall frame towered over Cassandra, but his smile melted away her jitters and he let her know that he was willing to help her in any way he could.
“Wonderful. Wonderful. Make sure you get my number. Let’s stay in contact and let me know if I can help you,” Chef RLI offered. His kind encouragement to help left her eyes filled with tears.
“I love baking, I love cooking, I cook for my grandpa all the time,” she recalled for him.
After just an hour and half at the event, her cheeks flush with excitement and bewilderment, Gillen asked Cassandra for a reality check. “We are here an hour and a half and how would you describe what’s going on so far?” inquired Gillen.
“I am shocked. I feel like I am dreaming,” responded a beaming Cassandra.
But the finale still awaited, a personal invitation to the celebrity chef trailer to meet her favorite Chef Rocco DiSpirito. In the thick of his appearances at the festival, he stopped everything to focus on Cassandra, her past and her future. And he made the present, incredibly magical for her.
“Anytime someone young wants to get involved in the culinary arts which I have spent my entire life devoted to, which I love so much, I get very excited for them. And we all feel that,” said DiSpirito.
He had her join him at the dining table.
“I would love to help you in any way I can. In the Italian household food is the currency of love, this is how we express our love for other people. When you feed a person it is an incredibly meaningful gesture it means you care about them. You are willing to invest in them. They have meaning and value in this world. When you do it in a business, it is the same thing,” DiSpirito shared.
Joining the conversation, another culinary legend, Chef Robert Irvine. He was wearing his traditional Superman T- Shirt. It was quickly clear; he is man with a super-sized heart.
“We get to change people’s lives every day through food. It’s exciting, when you see a young lady who wants to devote herself to that craft. It is a craft. It is an art. But it comes from your heart. I know Rocco and I know his mom and there is nobody more family oriented than he is. That is for sure,” Irvine explained and graciously continued.
“Food is about fun, family, giving a piece of yourself to someone else. And obviously you do that with you grandpa now. I echo what Rocco says, I am sorry for your losing your grandmother. You can honor that loss through food. It’s an amazing vehicle to remember them. You can change people’s lives through food.”
DiSpirito added, “I understand you want to go FIU and this festival was created to benefit FIU and hopefully you will be one of the beneficiaries of the 13 years of work that the festival has created. And if you need anything from us just let us know. I brought a copy of my book for you.” DiSpirito then signed his newest best seller “The Pound A Day Diet.”
“Congrats! It was so nice to meet you and best of luck in all your future endeavors.”
For a kid who seemingly never got a break in her young life, she finally got a day full of them.
Following big hugs, Gillen said goodbye with the cheer “to the next chapter!”
Schrager’s words and encouragement echoed. “I hope you are going to come visit us and I will show you around FIU. Remember, you can do anything.”