Mary Meets A Hero

Mary at her quince

Mary at her quince

Before Debbie started mentoring Mary, she never expected to get thwarted into the fast lane of an entirely different culture. Where Americans celebrate a girl’s transition to womanhood with a sweet sixteen, Latinas celebrate with a quinceañera.

For a young Latina, her quince is the highlight of her adolescent life. A big, festive party in celebration of her graduation into adulthood brings together family, friends, food, up-dos and beautiful dresses. Ceremonies vary by extravagance and budget and size and family support.

As a foster child, Mary desperately wanted a quince party, and as a young Cuban-American, she longed for a way to reconnect with her heritage.

But how does a girl in foster care even begin to plan a quinceañera party on her own? Where does she get the money? The access to venues, dresses, catering?

Debbie set her sights on figuring out a way to make it happen.

Most of Mary’s foster homes were in African-American and Haitian communities — naturally, she felt distanced from her Latina culture. Mary opened up to Debbie about her upcoming 15th birthday. Debbie says, “her eyes lit up when she told me about this party she was planning, when in fact no plans were being made.”

What better way for Debbie to try connecting with an unfamiliar culture than by planning a whole party around it?

“I didn’t know anything about throwing a quince party, but I had to try,” Debbie says. Together with two friends, Leslie and Alex, she planned and funded the majority of Mary’s quince celebration.

With their relationship as close as ever, Debbie became one of the most important constants in Mary’s life.

Set on giving Mary the opportunity to continue reconnecting with her culture, Debbie has celebrated two of Mary’s birthdays by taking her dancing at Gloria and Emilio Estefan’s now-closed Bongo’s Cuban Cafe in downtown Miami. “She missed dancing salsa,” Debbie says. “It was one of the few positive memories Mary had of her mother — salsa music playing in the house.”

In three years, Debbie became Mary’s hero. She became the person that reconnected Mary with her culture and her sense of individual identity — a feat lost all too often to children in the foster care system.

Find out where Mary’s future is taking her in Part III.

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