“Secret Santa” Makes a Young Girl’s Wish Come True

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By Laura Fonda Hochnadel

Most nine-year-old girls have clear ideas of what they want Santa to bring them for Christmas: an American Girl doll, a Nintendo DS, Harry Potter books, or board games. Ella Rodriguez's request this past Christmas, however, was something that couldn't be purchased at a store or made in Santa's workshop.

"Dear Santa," she wrote. "I can't believe Christmas is coming up! I don't know what I want, but I do want a new friend that has a prosthetic like me."

Ella with dolphin's prosthetic tail

Ella and her fellow campers had the chance to hold an older version of Winter the dolphin's prosthetic tail, as well as see the newest version.

rope climbing

After some exhausting work, Ella conquered the rope climbing. Photographs courtesy of Susan Rodriguez.

Ella was born with fibular hemimelia, an anomaly in which all or part of the fibula is missing. She had only three toes on her severely clubbed right foot, and while she has a fibula, her right leg was shorter than the left one. After much research and many medical consultations, her parents decided it would be in Ella's best interest to have her foot amputated. She underwent amputation surgery when she was nine months old and received her first prosthesis and learned to walk with it several months later. Ella has been well taken care of as a Shriners Hospitals for Children patient, her mother, Susan Rodriguez says. She is a well-adjusted child who is involved in a lot of activities-golf, ballet, soccer, and field hockey-and has many friends. But she has never had a friend who also uses a prosthesis.

letter to Santa

Ella's letter to Santa.

With renewed motivation to find Ella a friend who also uses a prosthesis and still uncertain where to turn, Rodriguez posted Ella's letter to Santa on Facebook. A chain of events was set in motion whereby some "elves" came to the rescue. Tina Eichner, a former editor of The O&P EDGE and a friend of Rodriguez's forwarded the letter to The O&P EDGE President and Publisher, Tonja Randolph, who posted it to the OANDP-L listserv, where it caught the attention of a frequent reader. This person became the "secret Santa" who fulfilled Ella's wish by sending her and her parents to attend Camp No Limits in Florida in January.

For four days, Ella was surrounded by, interacted with, and played with other children with limb loss. Mornings began with physical and occupational therapists leading the campers in Pilates moves and stretching exercises. Days were filled with running clinics, bicycle clinics, navigating obstacle courses, and using ropes to climb trees. Ella improved her bicycle riding skills, an activity from which her mother says she has often shied away. She also found out she loves to play basketball. Ella says that at the running clinic she learned she "could go faster if I pump my arms." Camp No Limits also holds group sessions where the children can discuss, among other things, techniques on how to handle questions pertaining to their limb loss. "I learned how to deal and act with people staring or making fun of me," Ella says. She also made many friends, but says she had the strongest bond with a girl named Katelyn.

letter to Santa

A young girl's Christmas wish comes true.

One highlight of the trip was the opportunity to visit the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Florida, and meet Winter the dolphin. Ella says she especially liked watching Winter swim without her prosthetic tail. Ella says she also enjoyed watching the talent show that was held the final night of camp. All the children had the option to participate, and Ella squelched her nerves, Rodriguez says, donned her ballet leg, and danced. "Ella went from being inspired to inspiring others," she says of the standing ovation her daughter received.

Ella says that she is very thankful for having attended Camp No Limits. For the first time in her life she was surrounded by other kids just like her and for once "felt normal," she says, adding that "it was a life-changing experience."