FORT WORTH -- Chilli Vasquez maneuvered her small wheelchair to face the Christmas tree covered in bright white lights.
Presents, dozens of them, were piled up, spilling out from under the tree.
Chilli could not take her eyes off them. Each box concealed something wonderful, she knew.
Nearby, Chilli's mother, Arabella Vasquez, watched and smiled.
"There was no way we could have bought Christmas presents this year," Vasquez said. "We had already told the kids, and they understood."
That was before Disabled Crime Victims Assistance stepped in, adopting the Vasquez family for Christmas and providing gift cards, games, dolls, clothes and more.
On Thursday morning, Chilli, whose full name is Xitclalli, opened a handful of gifts at Park Plaza in Fort Worth, where the victims group has its offices. She tore through the wrapping paper and smiled shyly at Barbies, a soft blanket and a green kaleidoscope, which she immediately shared with her 3-year-old sister, YaYa.
This has been a trying year for the Vasquez family.
On a Saturday afternoon in July, Chilli was on her way home from North East Mall in Hurst after celebrating her upcoming eighth birthday with her aunt, sister and nephew when a suspected drunken driver slammed into their car near 28th Street and Sylvania Avenue.
When Arabella Vasquez arrived, Chilli lay quietly on a stretcher. She did not cry or groan in pain. She just stared.
She must be in shock, Vasquez told everybody.
At the hospital, doctors poked and prodded Chilli's legs. Nothing.
Three surgeries later, doctors at Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth told the Vasquez family that Chilli would never walk again. Arabella Vasquez thought they were wrong. They just did not know how strong her daughter was.
This could not be happening to Chilli, who ran as fast as the boys and was so competitive that she would play Sorry or Uno over and over until she won.
Chilli's sister and nephew suffered only minor injuries in the crash, but her aunt, Maria Gutierrez, underwent two surgeries on her legs and one on her neck. She would have to wear a neck brace and rely on a walker.
'Never the same'
While staying at the hospital, the Vasquez and Gutierrez families learned of Disabled Crime Victims Assistance, which was started by Elizabeth Page and her mother, Wanda, in 1999. A decade earlier, Elizabeth, a recent college graduate who had taken a job as a social worker in Cleburne, was shot and paralyzed by a schizophrenic patient.
The mother and daughter started the organization to support other victims of violent crimes and help them find resources.
"The hardest thing for families is this goes on forever," Elizabeth Page said. "Every moment of your life is affected by this one crime, this one choice somebody else made. Life is never the same, and that can be very difficult to digest."
After 105 days in the hospital, Chilli returned home. Her mom took time off work but eventually lost her job as a customer service representative for an insurance company. Chilli's father, Pascual, is a welder and supports the family.
Bills piled up, and Chilli's family slowly learned how to adjust to life with a wheelchair. She had to wear a halo neck brace and tracheal tube, which were removed this month. A once-quick errand suddenly became a two-hour ordeal.
But the hardest part has been seeing Chilli watch her siblings, cousins and other children run and play, Vasquez said.
"It breaks my heart," she said.
As the holidays approached, the family decorated a tree and made plans to attend church Christmas morning. Parents told the kids that there would be few gifts.
Then Page asked whether they were interested in being adopted, and Vasquez jumped at the opportunity.
Every year, the group adopts several families, relying on donations from other tenants at Park Plaza, which houses 44 businesses and about 200 employees.
"Each year the stories are tough," said Linda Votaw, the leasing agent for the building who helps organize the annual donation drive. "This one was particularly tough. We had an outpouring from the employees."
Chilli, who will return to Diamond Hill Elementary School in January, did not ask for much for Christmas. Barbies. Art supplies. Hair bows. She and her siblings and cousins opened a few gifts Thursday but decided to wait and open most at home on Christmas morning.
After taking one last, long look at the gifts, Chilli turned to her mom.
"Don't worry about getting us any presents," she said. "We have enough."
Sarah Bahari, 817-390-7056