Christmas came early for Francisco and Santa Carrera, members of St. Andrew Apostle Parish in Silver Spring, Maryland, when the parish surprised the family Dec. 20 with a handicapped accessible van for their daughter who attends the school and uses a wheelchair.

The Carrera’s daughter, Yvonne – the oldest of five Carrera children, three of whom attend St. Andrew Apostle School – is a seventh grader at the school and has spina bifida.

A relatively rare birth defect, spina bifida occurs when a fetus’s spinal cord either does not develop or does not close properly while in the womb. Depending on the severity, a person with spina bifida can either walk without aid, walk with crutches or a walker or need to use a wheelchair. 

The $35,000 Chrysler van was purchased with donations from multiple anonymous donors. It was presented to the Carrera family, who are natives of El Salvador, after the daily Mass. The stunned family reacted with tears and hugs as Yvonne’s classmates sang, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

Yvonne Carrera, a seventh grader at St. Andrew Apostle School who has spina bifida, is helped out of the new van by her mother, Santa, and by Father  Majano. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

“I have no words. All I can say is ‘Thank you, God! Thank you, God! Thank you, God!’,” Francisco said, fighting back tears. “I am speechless.”

As the Carreras became familiar with how to use their new vehicle, Santa said, “I am very surprised by this. I thank God because He is good.”

Francisco and Santa Carrera react with tears of joy after being surprised with a handicapped accessible van that was donated by their parish and school. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Father Dan Leary, pastor of St. Andrew Apostle Parish, said that the parish and school community wanted to get the Carrera family a van because “people are touched by this family. They see them hustling and going to church, and they wanted to help. This is a good family doing their best to serve the Lord and others.”

The priest noted that Francisco, after dropping Yvonne off at school, stops and visits the Most Blessed Sacrament in the church to pray there.

Before they received the gift of the new van, Francisco and Santa had to physically pick up their daughter to get her in and out of a van. Father Leary said parishioners who see Francisco bring Yvonne to school every day “were moved by his gentleness and his love for his daughter. They also recognized the physical sacrifice required to lift a middle schooler in and out of a van.”

The priest said he is happy that “people’s eyes are open to the suffering around them and the power and witness of one faithfully carrying his cross.”

“It is beautiful to see the love that people have for others and their expression of Christ to the poor. It is a true blessing,” Father Leary added.

Members of St. Andrew Apostle School and Parish, along with classmates of Yvonne Carrera witness the surprise presentation of the van to the Carrera family. In front is seminarian Jonathan Barahona, who is assigned to the parish.  (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Susan Sheehan, the principal of St. Andrew Apostle School, also praised the Carrera family. “This is a very devout family who volunteers whenever they are needed, and they approach everything with a positive outlook,” she said.

She added that right now, Yvonne’s classmates are raising money to purchase for the school a handicap swing with a wider seat and straps “so Yvonne can get herself in an out of it and support herself when she is in it.”

The donation, Sheehan said, not only helps the Carrera family, but “helps students learn to be grateful for what they have and that there are always people who are willing to go the extra mile to help others.”

“Our students are good at service,” she added. “That is because everything we do in this school has a religious basis. God is in everything, and that is what we teach here.”

Before the surprise presentation to the Carrera family, the handicapped accessible Chrysler van was parked outside the school waiting for the family who was attending daily Mass. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)