When Ella Rodriguez was 9 years old, she had a big ask for Santa Claus.
"I wrote him a letter asking for a friend who looked like me," the now-15-year-old Rodriguez said.
The reason this was going to be a challenge for Saint Nick is that Rodriguez, born with a birth defect, had her right foot amputated when she was a baby. In her hometown of Gilroy, she knew of no other children using prosthetic limbs. Rodriguez said as a very little girl it barely registered with her that she was different from all her other peers but as she grew older that changed.
"It's going to sound harsh but I felt really alone," Rodriguez said.
Hence the letter to the North Pole.
"My mom was afraid that if she didn't get a list of kids with prosthetics that I would stop believing in Santa altogether, so she posted the letter on Facebook."
Susan Rodriguez' post got an unexpected response. A representative from the Challenged Athletes Foundation had seen the post and reached out. CAF is a nonprofit that helps support physically challenged individuals and gets them involved in athletics by supplying them with equipment, mentoring, and inspiration.
Within a couple of weeks, CAF arranged for Rodriguez to attend a triathlon in San Diego where she was suddenly surrounded with girls who looked just like her. "It was fun. We got to share our stories and it felt like you were completely normal," Rodriguez said.
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CAF also provided Rodriguez with her first running leg. With it, Rodriguez went from just being active to being an athlete. She has since participated in all sorts of sports and activities from golf and basketball to surfing and track and field.
The gift not only brought her into the world of sports, but it also brought Rodriguez out of her shell. "It's affected me in a way I can't quite put into words."
The only thing better than getting such a gift, Rodriguez though, would be to give one. And she knew just who to give it to.
Rodriguez had been inspired by a 5th-grader on her wheelchair basketball team named Braulio. "There's something that just stood out about him," Rodriguez said. "I think it was mainly his competitive spirit.
Braulio, however, was using a hand-me-down wheelchair that wasn't custom fit to his body, limiting his playing ability.
So, working with CAF, Rodriguez arranged for Braulio to be surprised with a new, custom wheelchair at the group's annual fundraising event in San Francisco.
"It meant so much to me when I was 9 years old that I couldn't even fathom what it's going to mean to him," Rodriguez said.