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Joyful tears mark Freedom to Walk gala

Emily Zmoda, left, and Freedom to Walk Foundation founder and executive director Daisy Vega show off their WalkAides, a device that helps them overcome foot drop, a condition caused by an underlying neurological, muscular or anatomical problem. Christian Mendez, center, received a WalkAide at the foundation’s gala Saturday.
Published Oct. 6, 2016

TAMPA — Not one speaker was able to get through their testimonial without joyful tears.

Such was the tone of the Freedom to Walk Foundation's fourth annual One Step At a Time Gala, held Saturday night at the Centre Club in Tampa.

While guests bid on impressive silent auction items and enjoyed a gourmet dinner, a prevailing feeling of gratitude and inspiration permeated the charitable affair.

The highlight of the evening was the foundation's donation of a WalkAide, a device that helps people overcome the debilitating ailment known as "foot drop." Foundation founder and executive director Daisy Vega, who lives in Riverview, surprised recipient Christian Mendez with the gift.

Mendez, 21, of Orlando and his parents Juan and Joann Hernandez, could not suppress their tears of elation and gratitude during the emotional moment. Vega admitted she lured the family to the gala under somewhat false pretenses.

"I told them a little fib, that this was an opportunity for them to meet people and fundraise for their son's WalkAide," Vega said. "Little did they know."

Mendez, born in Puerto Rico, was diagnosed with cancer as a child. He and his family moved to Florida for him to have brain surgery to remove the tumor. Although the surgery was a success, Mendez now battles foot drop, which causes him to drag his foot behind him due to paralysis.

Foot drop itself is not a disease but a result of an underlying neurological, muscular or anatomical problem such as multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, stroke, incomplete spinal cord injury or traumatic brain injury.

Freedom to Walk serves as a clearing house to assist with funding for the purchase of WalkAides for children and adults diagnosed with foot drop. The WalkAide stimulates the nerve endings so the foot regains feeling. Unfortunately, the device is not covered by most insurance companies and at $5,000, it is quite an expense for the average person.

Vega has MS and received the device several years ago because she could afford it. Then "God put it on her heart" to start the foundation to raise money for others.

Emily Zmoda, 26, a high school music teacher from Silver Spring, Md., made the trip to attend the gala with her mother. Zmoda had debilitating headaches for years, and had suffered a stroke when it was finally discovered that she had a brain tumor. After a successful surgery, she was left with paralysis on the left side of her body.

"One year ago, to this day, walking independently seemed like an impossibility and now, today, due to Daisy and this organization it is a reality" Zmoda said through tears. "I am forever grateful to Daisy for what she has done for me."

The keynote speakers also shared inspirational stories on overcoming adversity.

Ron Klein, the "Grandfather of Possibilities" gave a fascinating speech. At 81, he claims to be an ordinary man who has accomplished extraordinary things. He is the inventor of the magnetic strip used on all credit cards and the Multiple Listing Service used in real estate, as well as many other inventions that have changed the world.

David Kauffman, owner of Empowering Small Business and a motivational speaker, trainer and business coach, shared several inspirational stories and offered Christian words of faith.

"The three things needed to overcome adversity is encouragement, a strong sense of worth and dreams," Kauffman said.

Contact Karla Gibson at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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