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Antonio Dowels thought he was riding to Plant City on Friday morning to eat breakfast. He must have known something was up when he pulled into Ride Away Handicap Equipment Corporation, a place he’d visited a year before.
We were there in 2013 as Antonio tried to win a modified van through the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association's Local Hero Contest.
Antonio failed to get the votes he needed. But Dave Hubbard, the CEO of NMEDA, had an announcement to make Friday.
“I’m happy to tell you, Antonio, you won one of the vans,” Hubbard said. “You did a great job. You wrote a great story. You ran a great campaign. Look at all the awareness you achieved for people with disabilities.”
“I'm still shocked.” Antonio replied. “Last year, putting in all that work and then barely missing it. Now this time. I just tell people if at first you don't succeed, you just keep trying."
This year Antonio recruited partners such as his pastor and congregation at Holy Outreach for Christ Church and family members including his brother, John.
“He wanted all of us to go to the mall every day to pass out fliers,” John said. “Where we live, we went to apartments and knocked on doors giving out papers."
And many of you, viewers of ABC Action News, cast votes to put Antonio in the finals. What resonated with the judges?
“I think it was basically his giving back to the community,” Hubbard said. “He works with under privileged groups. He’s going to law school. Here is a guy who was a class-act athlete, and he got injured. And it’s really easy in that situation to give up, and he didn't."
Antonio will get a customized Toyota in about three weeks.
“It’s not like you pull a part off of a shelf and put it on. It takes quite a bit of time and effort,” said Jim Scruggs, the general manager of Ride Away Handicap Equipment Corporation.
Lisa, Antonio’s mother, was overwhelmed. His younger brother verbalized a lesson we can all learn from Antonio: “Hard work gets you somewhere."
Not only did something great happen for this young man, but you had a hand in making it happen. When we first shared his story, Antonio had little more than 1,000 votes. He ended up with 25,000.
There were more than 20 million page views to the Local Hero Contest webpage and 4 million votes cast nationwide. Even though only four won, 11 vans have since been donated by others, so 11 other people will get modified vans as well.
For more information on the contest, visit www.nmeda.org .