Local student honored by orphanage

Jim Mast, Special to The Sun
Mama Lupita, Ally Woodard and Juany Reyes at the quinceanera at Casa Hogar Elim orphanage.

It’s special to celebrate your 15th birthday with a few friends, maybe at home or a nearby restaurant. On Aug. 1, local student Ally Woodard had one of those special birthday celebrations.

Except it was in another country, not nearby, and instead of a few friends she was celebrating with more than a hundred. And it was not just a 15th birthday party, but a beautifully choreographed quinceanera at Casa Hogar Elim orphanage in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

“It was the greatest night of my life," Ally recounted.

It took several months to plan, but both the founder and director of Casa Hogar, Mama Lupita and Juany Reyes, were determined to honor Ally’s dedication to the more than 100 children of the orphanage.

“Ally has been here many times to help us, and the children love her and look forward to her visits,” said Reyes. “And her YouTube documentary about Mama Lupita brought us attention and support from all over Mexico. A quinceanera was the perfect way for us and the children to show how much she means to us.”

Ally’s previous five visits since 2012 as an Ambassador for the Art Miles Mural Project were to deliver new shoes, art supplies, clothing and food to the orphanage. Her 2012 documentary has more than 50,000 views and was seen by producers at TV Azteca, a national Mexican network.

From seeing Ally’s short film, TV Azteca felt Mama Lupita was a perfect subject for their program “Tiempo de Heroes” (Time of Heroes). Upon airing Aug. 5, 2012, Mama Lupita went from being a local to a national hero. Reyes gives Ally the credit. “She set it all in motion.

In 2013 Ally’s eighth grade Spanish class at Emerald Coast Middle School, led by teacher Susan Marino, took part in an Art Miles cultural exchange with the Casa Hogar children. ECMS and the orphanage took turns, each alternately painting half a 5x12 foot canvas with scenes depicting their lives in Walton County and Nuevo Laredo.

In ninth grade this year at South Walton High School, Ally’s Spanish III teacher Ana Rodriguez had her class make cards at Christmas and Valentines for the children at Casa Hogar.

“These types of activities mean so much to our kids,” said Reyes. “Ally has had an incredibly positive impact upon Casa Hogar and that is why we wanted to show her how much she means to us.”

“Everyone at the quinceanera made me feel like a princess. I couldn’t believe it was me in that beautiful dress Mama Lupita had picked out," said Ally. “The kids were dressed up, they had decorated the church, the courtyard, and they had been preparing food for several days. The whole experience was so surreal."

Ally, humbled and honored by the experience, vows to continue her efforts for the children.

“Three and a half years ago, when I first started visiting and fundraising for the orphanage. I never would have imagined that this place would become such a huge part of my life. The children all call me amiga,” she said. “Some tell me I am their 'hermana' — their sister. They are my family. I can’t let them down.”