Unassuming and soft-spoken, 12-year-old shooting survivor Juan Rodriguez slowly shuffled behind his cranberry-colored walker Saturday morning as his excited mother led him to an unexpected family Christmas gift waiting curbside outside his Buffalo home.
His eyes quickly widened as he took in the maroon 2016 Dodge Grand Caravan that Mayor Byron Brown and West Herr Automotive Group officials arranged to donate to his family.
"Awesome," said Rodriguez before getting inside it with his mother. "I'm going in! It's the exact same color as my walker."
The donated seven-passenger minivan, with 25,000 miles, was more than a blessing for the family whose silver 2003 van with 145,000 miles was worn out and needed a lot of repairs.
"Oh my God. Oh my God," his mother, Sonia Pagan, kept repeating after city officials woke her to come outside and see the surprise. "Is that mine, right there? Oh, my God. Thank you so much."
Pagan couldn't quite believe the gift of a van. The family's day Friday had not been the best and someone had hit her van after she dropped off her children at her mother's home.
"I get a new car? Are you serious?" Pagan said, hugging West Herr President and Chief Executive Officer Scott Bieler. "Yesterday was sort of a bad day, and then we woke up to this. God has blessed us."
After she and her other children piled into it to check the new wheels out, complete with a television, she looked out of the side door sitting beside her son, and said: "I feel very blessed."
The mayor and Kevin Helfer, city parking commissioner, started working on the project in the fall, reaching out to Bieler.
"This is just another step to help a family that has gone through such a traumatic experience," Brown said. "The family's story touched the hearts of so many people in the community."
Bieler, who spoke with Rodriguez, was visibly moved by the young boy's courage and family's gratitude. "To me, this is our Christmas gift," he said. "I just feel blessed we are able to do something like this. Because of the support Western New York gives us, we can do something like this. This is our way of giving back."
Rodriguez continues to face a long recovery after getting caught in the crossfire of a gang-related shooting over the summer on Humason Avenue, the family's former neighborhood. He was inside his home and had run to the door to get his younger siblings out of harm's way. He suffered a severe gunshot wound when he was struck by a bullet from a high-powered rifle that continued through his house and eventually lodged in the wall of a house next door.
After running inside their new home to get her other children to come out and see the new van, Pagan expressed her gratitude to city and West Herr officials. "Thank you from the bottom of my heart," she said. Later, as she gently ran her fingertips across the radio, she said the van is "perfect." "I'm just speechless," she said.
Her daughter, 15-year-old Alina Williams, said the new van will be especially helpful to her brother. The van will be easier for Juan to get into and it will better accommodate his wheelchair and walker. "I like it a lot," Alina said.
Juan said he loves all the room in the new van. "There's a lot of space and now there is more room for my wheelchair and walker," he said.
Her son, whom she now home schools, faces many surgeries in the days ahead, the next one in mid-January to return part of his skull, now anchored along the left side of his body, back to the left side of his head.
But he's also made a lot of progress. He can now walk slowly, although his left arm isn't mobile.
"He's trying his best," Pagan said.