ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — The young woman walked into a room filled with law enforcement officers. She had been invited to the suburban Orlando sheriff’s office but was confused about why she was there.
Then they asked her to come up on stage, where one deputy ceremoniously unveiled a picture of a new Nissan Versa.
“It’s yours,” he said.
The woman, 20-year-old Samantha Rodriguez, was overwhelmed. For almost three years, she has been taking care of her five younger siblings. She’s been keeping them clothed, fed and going to school every day — all without the help of a car.
“When they told me the car is for us, I remember thinking, ‘They just took away all these worries and stresses.'” she told CNN. “It was such a big weight off my shoulder and will help so much.”
After their parents died, she resolved to keep her family together
Both Rodriquez’s mother and father died from cancer in the past five years.
Her siblings, now ages five to 17, were in danger of heading to the state’s foster-care system.
“I knew what I had to do,” Rodriquez said about her decision to raise her brothers and sisters. “I learned so much from my mom. I was like her sidekick. I learned what it meant to raise a family.”
She moved with her siblings to Orange County, Florida, because their grandmother lived there.
But resources were scarce and Rodriquez had to grow up fast.
“It can be tough knowing when to be like a parent and when to be their sister,” she said. “Sometimes it can feel like I’m alone.”
Then the Sheriff’s Department stepped up
Last December, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s aviation unit learned of Rodriguez’s unusual family and how they were sticking together through tough times. The officers invited the kids for a visit.
“We took pictures with the officers and the helicopter,” Rodriguez said. “Then they said, ‘Let’s go into this room for milk and cookies.'” The room was filled with Christmas presents for the family.
“We focused on clothes but also toys,” Lieutenant Antorrio Wright told CNN. “We wanted to give them a good Christmas.”
The sheriff’s department posted a video of the Christmas surprise online. And people began responding, asking to help.
Then Wright remembered that Rodriguez and her siblings had arrived for their visit in an Uber because they didn’t have a car.
And the family got a welcome surprise
Four months after Christmas, Wright asked Rodriguez to come to his office.
“I thought it was just a meeting,” she said. “He asked me to come into this room with all the people we had met at Christmas.”
Lieutenant Wright told her a group of anonymous donors wanted to help the family. That’s when he pulled the cloth off the picture of the shiny sedan.
“I was so in shock!” Rodriguez said. “This is so crazy!”
Wright helped her get auto insurance and then took her to the dealership to pick up the car.
“It really didn’t sink in until a couple of days after,” she said. “Everything I plan now for the kids is so much easier. I don’t have to call for a ride. I’m very grateful for it. All these people reminded me I’m not alone.”
Wright says this generosity won’t be a one-time thing.
“Anything I can do or we can do with the Sheriff’s blessing we will. I’m proud of my unit,” he said. “It’s heartwarming. It wasn’t just me — it was the unit, and all these people came together to help.”
Wright encouraged other people who want to help Rodriguez and her siblings to get in touch with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez remains blown away by the community’s kindness.
“It gave me so much inspiration to do better for other people,” she said. “Other amazing people came into our life like this and they didn’t have to. We are so grateful.”