TAMPA — After much debate about cancelling the event and expecting a smaller-than-normal crowd due to Hurricane Irma and other factors, the fifth annual Freedom to Walk Foundation gala proved successful.
A full crowd gathered at the Centre Club to dine, bid on prizes and gift baskets, enjoy entertainment from violinist Cosi Gonzalez and hear inspirational speeches.
Yet the biggest highlight turned out to be the look of surprise on the faces of two young men who received WalkAides, the device that helps combat foot drop, a symptom of several diseases that prevents people from walking comfortably. When foundation founder and executive director Daisy Vega announced Sammie Sherman and Felix Ortiz would receive the devices, the crowd rose to its feet as a few onlookers dabbed away tears.
Both children and their families were lured to the gala under a ruse of inspiring attendees to donate.
Earlier in the evening, Rochelle Sherman, mom to 5-year-old Sammie and 11-year-old William, spoke about the journey her son endured since being diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth.
"We were told he would never walk," said Rochelle Sherman, who noted Sammie's cerebral palsy causes foot drop. "Now he not only walks but runs, albeit with gait issues and a lot of tripping. Yet he looks forward to playing soccer one day."
Though grateful for all of the medical treatments they've received, including braces, she explained that "as helpful as braces are, they are also very restrictive," especially for an energetic little boy living in Florida.
The outgoing child started kindergarten in a mainstream school this year and wants nothing more than to fit in.
"Kids are always asking him what's wrong with him and why does he wear those braces," Sherman said. "He handles it well, but wishes he could keep up with other kids."
Sammie will have that chance thanks to the WalkAide. The same life-altering changes also should come to Felix Ortiz, an 11th-grader at Kissimmee Osceola High School. Felix, 17, is the oldest of three and has suffered from seizures due to being diagnosed with meningitis at 1 month old.
He's had two brain surgeries that have ultimately left him numb on his left side. Although physical therapy and occupational therapy as well as braces have helped, the assistance could only do so much.
Like Sammie, Felix used the WalkAide on a temporary basis and noticed an immediate change.
"It made me feel normal and I could keep pace with my family and friends," the teen said.
Keynote speaker Ron Klein, inventor of the magnetic strip on credit cards, said the way to make a positive change in the world is to be smart.
"I don't mean book smart, I mean making smart decisions every day, using common sense, it is not hard" said Klein, 82. "We all have hardships and frustrations but a frustration is simply a challenge which leads to an opportunity and ends with a gift.
"You take what you're given and work to reach a goal. That is called your journey."
Vega suffers from foot drop as a result of having multiple sclerosis. She received a WalkAide six years ago and said, "God put it on her heart to help others receive the device," because it's not covered through insurance.
Contact Karla Gibson at [email protected]