The first thing you notice about Debbie Baigrie is her great big smile.
A smile that was introduced to an arena filled with cheering hockey fans as she was honored as 2018’s fifth Tampa Bay Lightning Community Hero.
So many now know that welcoming smile that spreads wide, brightly filling your face with joy and happiness. But, it wasn’t always so. Debbie’s mouth was shattered by a bullet in a botched robbery attempt.
There is a verse in a song that says, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine, let it shine, all the time.” Debbie’s light of forgiveness, of encouragement and of action has created a better life for the 13-year old Tampa child who shot her in the face and was sentenced to life in prison and for the people she serves as a community volunteer.
Ian Manual placed a call to Debbie after his first year in prison. The 14-year-old simply wanted to wish her a Merry Christmas and say that he was sorry. It was a mistake that he shot her. He also asked if he could begin writing her letters. She agreed. She recognized, through his letters, an intelligent young man with skills in expressing himself and great remorse for his act. She also learned he had had no direction or positive influences in his young life prior to committing this crime. She began to encourage him to set and achieve goals. He got his high-school equivalency diploma while in prison and he wrote poetry. Debbie likely was the first person to recognize his humanity; this gave him hope.
Debbie says the shooting motivated her to become an active participant in making lives better. So, she serves the homeless every week at Trinity Cafe. She listens with empathy, offers encouragement and hope much as she did with Manual. And, she continues to be a great influencer in his life too.
During 26 years of incarceration, Debbie encouraged Ian Manual to keep his nose clean, to get an education and to have hope for a future. After years of legal maneuverings Manuals’ sentence was reduced when the courts deemed he was unfairly sentenced as a child. Upon his release, Debbie was there to greet him and take him out for his first meal as a free 39-year old man. Pizza, at a downtown Tampa restaurant!
Her compassion and forgiveness for this man inspired in her a burning desire to be the difference in other people’s lives. Debbie feels that there are too many kids, like Manual with no real role models, no one to see that they have a chance to succeed. So, she raises and donates money to All Sports Community Service Foundation, a charity that funds scholarships for at-risk kids hoping to save others from making bad choices. The first person they sponsored through this program is now a high-school principal!
She is devoted to volunteer action and service. She serves the homeless and hungry at Trinity Cafe. When you see Debbie in action at Trinity Cafe, you will notice a few things. First and foremost, is that great big smile. Second is her upbeat, positive attitude. Third is she loves the music played during serving hours. You often catch her dancing and singing. And, she gets her guests to do the same! One day after enjoying the sounds of Motown, a guest leaving the table said, “Wow, Debbie has it going on! I was in such a bad mood when I got here, and she wouldn’t have it. Now look at me – I’m dancing out of here!”
That’s Debbie’s little light shining again!
Debbie embraces a philosophy that Trinity Cafe espouses – whatever their circumstance, everyone deserves dignity, respect, humanity and a chance. Debbie’s legacy through community involvement mirrors that mantra. She wishes to be involved in building a tiny house community for those who need temporary housing and a chance to get back on their feet, while they contribute to that community. Debbie lives her legacy and it shines through in all she does to affect the underserved in this community.
A hero in our world everyday, Debbie is paid for her volunteer work in the form of hugs, handshakes, pats on the back and many, many verbal expressions of thanks and gratitude for her kindness, compassion, love and respect. And, sometimes with a dance too!
Reflection by Cindy Davis
We proudly celebrate Cindy’s 9 years of service in her position as Program Director, sharing her talents and heartfelt advocacy for Tampa’s homeless and hungry. Cindy joins Debbie as a shining example of serving our community with compassion, dignity and respect.