When Milagros Perez, a 4-year-old born without legs, found out her specialized wheelchair had been stolen last week, she was the one who consoled her mother.
"It's OK, Mommy. Don't cry anymore," she told her.
By Sunday, however, the Perez family had a double cause for celebration, not consolation. Milagros' wheelchair had been returned under mysterious circumstances to their Santa Ana home. And to make matters better, an organization that had donated $10,000 to the family to replace the wheelchair told them that they could keep the money for any other help Milagros needs, authorities said.
Milagros means "miracles" in Spanish. The story of her stolen wheelchair and "Frozen" backpack captured the hearts of Southern Californians during Thanksgiving week, sparking an outpouring of donations and gifts for the ponytailed, brown-eyed girl.
The family had left the custom-made wheelchair behind a gate outside their apartment on the 400 block of South Flower Street. After searching for the wheelchair and checking nearby pawn shops, the family reported the theft Tuesday night. The apartment is too small to keep the wheelchair inside, so they have had to leave it outside, said the girl's mother, Rosa Isela Perez.
The theft spurred an outpouring of support for Milagros and her family. Employees at a local Home Depot store presented them with a Christmas tree, ornaments and some toys, Santa Ana police said. Police officers provided a Thanksgiving dinner for the family. A real estate agent donated a new "Frozen" backpack and dress for Milagros, Perez said.
KNBC-TV Channel 4 reported that the Saul Brandman Foundation donated $10,000 to replace the custom wheelchair, which police estimated could cost $8,500 to $10,000 to build. Perez told the organization that she wanted to return the check after the wheelchair was returned without explanation. Her husband, Antonio Perez-Sanchez, spotted it when he arrived home early Friday morning from delivering newspapers.
Regardless of the return, foundation officials told her to keep the money for Milagros, Perez said.
Police took DNA and fingerprints to try to determine who took the chair but the investigation may take a while, police officials said.
From birth, Milagros was born with a myriad of health conditions — including a heart ailment. She's sustained at least half a dozen surgeries but she has been tough throughout with an amazing desire to live, Perez said.
Her mother said Milagros didn't want to show too much sadness, trying to keep an appearance of strength after the wheelchair theft. But when it reappeared nearly a week later, Milagros beamed visibly.
"It's always been that way. I'm the one who cries," the elder Perez said. "She's the strong one. She's the one who gives me the strength to keep going."
Sunday afternoon, Milagros and her mother spent a few hours at the playground at Jerome Park — her favorite.
Milagros giggled and flapped her arms — pretending to fly like a bird — as her mother pushed her on a swing.
"Harder, Mommy. Harder," Milagros urged her mother in Spanish.
"But Milagros, we have to be careful because I don't want you to fall out," Perez said.
"Harder, Harder," Milagros insisted.
"OK, but you have to hold on. Don't fall out," Perez said.
Milagros looked up at the sky and smiled. Her pigtails flailed in the wind.
"Just like that, Mommy. Just like that," she said.
"She's always like this," Perez said. "She's never scared."
Perez said she hopes the person who returned the wheelchair was touched by Milagros' story, but she isn't sure that's the case. Regardless, she said she thinks it's all God's doing.
At the playground, Milagros got around quickly with one foot and hands.
Sometimes children point and say: "Hey. She doesn't have feet."
Milagros responds: "I do. I have one foot."
"You can't walk," some children have said.
Milagros has responded: "Yes I can, and I'm faster than you."