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MIAMI BEACH (CBSMiami) — Sisters Janae Russell and Janiya Tuff paid a special tribute to their mentor, Gabriela Raccah, at the Big Brothers Big Sisters annual Jazz at Joe’s brunch, a fundraiser to support mentoring in the community.

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“My big sister has inspired me to express my feelings more, and be open to new friends,” said 12-year-old Tuff at a podium in front of a restaurant full of philanthropists.

Their mother, Laquica Tuff, was with them as well.  Together, the family has experienced difficult times – living in public housing with someone who was mentally and physically abusive, constantly surrounded by crime scene tape.

“It was basically bad decisions that I chose to make, and they saw everything,” said Laquica Tuff.  “They lived through it with me, and my goal was obviously to get them out of the situations that I was in – whatever it took.”

Laquica Tuff was determined to carve a better path for her four children.

“I want better,” she said.  “That was my major goal as we were going through this.  They have to go through that.  They have to go down a different path.  They can’t live this any longer.”

Laquica Tuff contacted Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami, and that’s when Raccah came into Russell’s life, almost four years ago.

“I know people are caught up in their daily lives – work, school or other things – that they really have to take care of, but taking time to give back to the community is something really important,” said Raccah.  “I feel nowadays people are a bit disconnected, and I feel it really brings togetherness for everyone, especially for a child.”

“I would describe Gaby as a nice person,” said 11-year-old Russell.  “She’s outgoing, she’s funny, she’s beautiful and she’s nice.”

Soon, older sister Janiya Tuff was coming along with them. The three of them exploring the world together, admiring art in Wynwood, eating sushi and practicing yoga.

“She’s very outgoing, and her personality is like, let’s do this,” said Janiya Tuff.  “Let’s do this. You can do that… a fun, fun personality.”

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Russell was once terrified of dogs, but now both girls can’t wait to go to Raccah’s and play with her many pets.

“She changed my life by doing a lot of stuff, like letting us meet new people, taking us to her family, letting us explore new, other cultures and stuff,” said Janiya Tuff.

“I get huge satisfaction in knowing that I can change these girls’ lives. To make them feel like they can become whatever they want when they’re older, that nothing holds them back. That whatever environment they grew up in, that should not hold them back from becoming whatever they want,” said Raccah.  “So I really feel inspired.  I’m happy I can do that for them.  That’s all I really want.”

The girls have big dreams.

Janiya Tuff wants to be a baker when she grows up. Russell wants to be a professional singer, dancer and actor.

“It’s like a breath of fresh air, it’s like a burden is lifted off of me,” said their mother.  “I could sleep better, knowing that my girls have someone to look up to.”

Laquica Tuff said she is still a single mom with struggles, but now three of her four children are in private or charter schools.

She said she is striving every day to improve their lives, and she credits much of her daughters’ success to Raccah.

“This whole experience has given me hope, and it has made me want to, of course, do better for myself,” she said.  “And taught me to strive and reach for the stars, and that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

It’s a relationship they all cherish, and one that will likely last through many more ups and downs, for years to come.

“I plan on making them part of my family,” said Raccah.  “We’ve spoken about that, too.  We’d like them to come to our family events and vice versa.  Even after they are 18 years old, I hope they still stay in contact with me and my family, and hopefully one day, they become a mentor for another girl, and they can continue, and keep inspiring girls everywhere to become strong and independent.”

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