Nora Sandigo answered a frantic knock at the front door of her Miami home in 2009, and six years later, that door has never closed.
“These two young children were standing there so scared. Their mother from Nicaragua was being deported,” Sandigo tells PEOPLE. “They needed help. I said, ‘You will never be alone.’ ”
She didn’t just keep her promise – she ended up adopting those children, Cecia and Ronald Soza, and today, she is now the legal guardian to over 900 kids in similar situations.
Sandigo plays the role of both mother and father to “immigration orphans” – children born in this country to illegal-immigrant parents who have either been deported or are at the risk of deportation.
When both parents are forced to leave the country, the children either go into foster care or have to leave the country – unless they have a legal guardian.
But Sandigo doesn’t have all the children under one big roof.
Under U.S. law, if a child has a legal guardian, they’re able to stay elsewhere in the country with relatives or friends, even if those hosts are here illegally.
“These children deserve a happy home with their families,” Sandigo, 50, tells PEOPLE. “They don’t deserve to be torn apart from them. Someone has to step up. I guess that’s me.”
As a little girl, Sandigo lived a great life with her family in Comalapa, Nicaragua, but one day in 1979, her life was turned upside down.
“It was a beautiful town with beautiful people,” says Sandigo, who won Hero of the Year at the PEOPLE Magazine Awards in December 2014. “It was a like a dream until everything was ruined.”
The bloody Nicaraguan Revolution tore apart her community and within days, Sandigo was sent to live with her older sister in Venezuela.
“All my dad thought about was keeping us safe,” says Sandigo, who was just 14 years old at the time. “I said goodbye, gave him a big kiss and never saw him again.”
A few years later, she went to Miami and started working for an organization that helped refugees coming to the United States.
“I understood what they’re going through,” she says. “I realized that this is what I was supposed to be doing. I wanted to help them as much as I could.”
With limited funds, but endless determination, Sandigo founded American Fraternity, which helps immigrants integrate and adjust to American society, culture and legal processes. Through the organization, Sandigo helps stranded children find homes, raises money for clothing and school supplies, provides transportation any hour of the day and offers endless emotional support.
“I was born on July 4, and my dad always thought that was important. He told me that the day I was born was a very important day for Americans,” she says. “He said I needed to do something beautiful. It’s a blessed day to be born on.”
A Day in the Life
Sandigo works 24 hours a day – rushing around the Miami area meeting with her “kids” during the day, and thinking about ways she can help them at night.
“This isn’t a job,” she says. “It’s my life. There is no time to rest.”
On one afternoon in the summer of 2014, Sandigo stopped by the house of 14-year-old Elena Marquez in Homestead, Florida, to help install an air conditioner for the family.
Elena’s father had just been deported and Sandigo held her in her arms to comfort her. The teen’s mother refused to leave the house in fear that she would be taken to the deportation center as well.
“Your father loves you very much and misses you,” Nora whispered in Elena’s ear.
Elena’s 10-year-old brother, Andres, added: “I am the man of the house now. I really miss my dad. Now my sisters play soccer with me because he’s not here. They feel bad.”
Sandigo also hosts bi-weekly parties at her house where children and their relatives can come to relax, have fun and forget – “just for a minute” – their numerous worries.
File cabinets at her office are filled with every child’s documents, including a photo of each of them.
“I’ve met every kid at least once,” she says. “But it’s hard to see the ones that live far away, like in New Jersey.”
Her phone is always on the loudest ringer, and she never once complains.
“She is always willing to go the extra mile,” Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who has known Sandigo for 25 years, tells PEOPLE. “Nora is a helping hand and guardian angle for these kids.”
Nora says she will never slow down because she has too much work to do and more children to help.
She frequently goes to Washington, D.C., where she speaks to lawmakers regarding immigration reform. She is currently walking 100 miles to the capital from Maryland and hopes to meet Pope Francis.
“I speak up for these kids and their parents who are voiceless,” says her adopted daughter, Cecia, 19, who just started her freshman year at Georgetown University. “She does everything for us.”
Sandigo, who also has two biological daughters, says that it doesn’t matter how big her family gets, she will always make time for every child.
“All 900 kids I have taken under my wing, they’re my kids. We are just one big family. I will be there for them no matter what,” she says.
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