QUINCEANERAS are a big deal.
Participants wear Cinderella gowns and tiaras, and often participate in a Catholic Mass during which they are presented with Bibles, jewelry and other symbols of adulthood.
As a preteen, Amber Andujar of Camden looked forward to this Hispanic coming-of-age ceremony with a sweet naivete. But that was before tragedy struck and her innocence was snatched away during a brutal home invasion.
It happened on her birthday back on Sept. 2, 2012. Amber, then 12, and her three siblings were home alone when a knife-wielding intruder broke into their home on Ware Street and sexually assaulted her at knifepoint.
Awakened by her terrified screams, her 6-year-old brother rushed to her defense. Little Dominick Andujar's heroics that night distracted the assailant long enough for Amber, whose neck had been slashed, to flee to a neighbor's house for help. Dominick's throat also was cut during the attack. His subsequent death sparked national outrage over the senselessness of it all.
Fast forward to this past December when a brave Amber faced her brother's killer in court announcing, "Today, I stand here as a survivor." A judge sentenced Osvaldo Rivera to life in prison plus 35 years, bringing much-needed closure to an ugly chapter in the family's life.
Moving forward, though, has been a struggle. Amber's mother, Debbie Burgos, lost her job in the aftermath of the attack and was out of work for two years. She now suffers from panic attacks and works only part time as a cashier. Amber was hospitalized for weeks, unable to even attend her brother's funeral. She still is undergoing treatment for her physical as well as psychological wounds.
But there's a bright spot that they cling to: Amber's upcoming quinceañera, which celebrates her 15th birthday. As a family, they ooh and aah over the beautiful, white dresses that Amber finds on her iPad. She has picked an Egyptian theme for her party, which is scheduled for Sept. 12. Her color scheme will be gold, turquoise and coral. She's planning to dance with special relatives as well as perform a group dance with her cousins and friends during the reception.
Instead of having damas (female attendants), Amber wants little boys to participate in her ceremony as stand-ins for her deceased brother. Immediately following the church service, she plans to visit his grave and leave her bouquet in a gesture of love and appreciation. Planning Amber's 15th birthday is something happy to focus on instead of what they lost that awful night.
"All three of them are into this sweet 15," Burgos said.
At first, Amber had fretted that she was not eligible to have a quinceañera because of what she endured during her assault. Then, her mother explained to her that "in God's eyes and everybody else's eyes, you are still a pure young lady."
After she got that straight, Burgos vowed that her daughter would get her quince no matter how much it cost. A friend, Angie Burgos, no relation, suggested she try setting up an online crowdfunding account.
Earlier this month, a family member established a GoFundMe account and asked for $2,500 in contributions - barely enough to cover the cost of the party. The page contains beautiful photos of Amber, her neck scars still visible. She's dressed in a bright-colored jacket with a photo of her little brother and the words "My Lil Hero" on the back.
The posting went viral immediately. On Friday, singer Keyshia Cole put it on her Facebook page saying, "God bless this young lady! #RIP beautiful baby boy! #SendingLove #Amber." MTV.com wrote about the fundraiser last week.
When I checked yesterday, the total amount donated had reached nearly $8,000. Time For Fun Jumpers in Pennsauken, N.J., offered Amber a special gold throne chair to sit on during the event. Owner Lawrence Johnson said a smiling Amber and her mother had already stopped by to look it over and do the paperwork for the free rental. The plan is for Amber's godfather, uncle, stepdad and grandfather to carry her on it as she makes a grand entrance into the church. Given all that she's endured, there won't be a dry eye in the place.
To the contributors who've already reached out, Amber said, "Thank you for all the support and love."
Thank you, indeed. But a party's only one day.
The Burgos family is barely getting by. I hope readers will donate to Amber's GoFundMe (gofundme.com/amber15) - not just for the quince but for Amber's future.
Amber wants to be a pediatrician, so give what you can. It doesn't have to be a lot.
As little as $5 is a reminder to Amber of all the goodness in the world. Yes, an evil monster knocked down an innocent little girl that awful night.
But there are a lot of good people to give her a hand up as she becomes a woman.