When Samantha Rodriguez’s parents passed away from cancer within a few years of each other, the 21-year-old took on the role of a mom and a dad for her younger siblings, aged between 7 and 16 years old, to keep the family together.
Samantha, from Orlando, Florida, was just 17 years old when her father, Alexander Rodriguez, died in 2016 from lymphoma cancer. Her mother, Lisa Smith died of cervical cancer three years earlier in 2013. After losing both their parents, the siblings realized that no one in their family could take them all in. In addition, they faced the threat of being split up by social workers, but the determined Samantha refused to let that happen.
“I decided that I had to do everything I possibly could to help these kids,” Samantha told PEOPLE. “There was no way that I was going to let us be split up.”
While her grandmother helped around the house, Samantha, who works as a part-time waitress to provide for her family, had to take her siblings to school and doctor’s appointments and found it especially hard without a car.
Fortunately, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and the local community stepped up to help.
After the Sheriff’s office surprised the Rodriguez siblings with Christmas gifts in 2018 during a tour at the office’s Aviation Unit, local residents inspired and touched by their story started to contact the office to ask if they could also help the family. Then, a group of anonymous donors bought a new Nissan Versa for them in 2019.
Samantha was blown away by their kind gesture and couldn’t believe it.
The Rodriguez kids lost both parents to cancer in recent years. Samantha, 20, has taken on the role of caregiver to her five younger siblings. The kids thought they were visiting the OCSO Aviation Unit for a tour. Instead, they received a Christmas none of us will ever forget! pic.twitter.com/1Bs4w6PQob
— Orange County Sheriff’s Office (@OrangeCoSheriff) December 24, 2018
“It really didn’t sink in until a couple of days after,” she told CNN. “Everything I plan now for the kids is so much easier. I don’t have to call for a ride. I’m very grateful for it. All these people reminded me I’m not alone.”
According to a video by the sheriff’s office, Academy Sports and Outdoors also sponsored $1,500 to help the siblings with back-to-school supplies such as backpacks and sneakers.
Although life is challenging for Samantha as she had to play the role of an adult and remain positive and be there for her siblings, she credits the strength to her mother.
“I get a lot of that strength from my mother,” Samantha told The View, a talk show aired on ABC. “I spent a lot of time with her and I admired her so much.”
After losing her parents, the young girl decided she wanted to be like her mother. Since then, she has tried to teach her siblings some valuable life lessons that she had learned from their parents as she grew up.
“They showed us not to take anything for granted. That’s something I try to teach the kids,” Samantha said. “At the end of the day, the material things don’t matter. What’s given can be taken away so fast. The only thing that really matters is family and love and support.”
Wanting to show her siblings that education is important, Samantha even went back to school to complete her high school studies that she had dropped out of in order to take care of her ailing parents. After receiving her diploma, Samantha started to attend college part-time.
“I didn’t know people who graduated high school or went college, and I didn’t have that direction so it was hard for me,” Samantha said. “When I realized that I wanted the kids to finish and that I wanted them to be successful, I was like I need to give them that example and show them.”
Needless to say, with all that Samantha has done over the years, from helping them with their homework to making sure they are fed and the bills are paid, her siblings are eternally grateful.
“I don’t know where we would be without Sam but I know it wouldn’t be good,” her brother, Michael, told PEOPLE.
“I try to give them the love that they need and the support they need, and I try to do it for two,” Samantha told The View.
However, for Samantha, who has taken up the responsibility to not just provide food and shelter to her siblings but also love and care, she’s contented with it.
“It makes me so happy to be with them and to be there for them,” she said. “It’s very enjoyable for me.”
In December 2019, the siblings were gifted with Disney toys and a new car from Toyota during their appearance on The View. In addition to that, Samantha even received a $15,000 scholarship from the automobile company to continue her education.