Courtesy Debbie Baigrie

"He made a huge mistake but he's not a bad person," Debbie Baigrie tells PEOPLE

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December 17, 2014 05:10 PM

Debbie Baigrie was shot in the mouth 24 years ago – and today, she says with confidence that she has forgiven the person responsible.

It was July 27, 1990, and having recently given birth to her second child, Baigrie’s friends convinced her to come out to a happy hour in downtown Tampa.

The bar was in a bad neighborhood, so a man kindly offered to walk her to her car at the end of the night.

“I was standing by my car and a group of three guys walked up to me,” Baigrie, 52, who is a magazine publisher, tells PEOPLE. “One of the guys said,’Hey, you got any change?’ and then I heard from behind me, ‘I’m serious give it up.’ ”

When she turned around, a gun was in her face. Before she could even think, the young man holding the gun fired.

The bullet went into her mouth, ricocheted off her tooth and went out her cheek.

“I then started to run for my life,” she says. “When I got help it felt like I had run eight miles but it was only about 100 yards.”

She didn t know who he was at the time, but Ian Manuel, who was only 13 years old, kept on shooting.

A Surprising Outlook

It was a long recovery to physically heal from the extensive injuries she suffered, but Baigrie also found that healing mentally was just as difficult.

“I was so angry,” she says. “But when I found out how young he was I was absolutely heartbroken. How could a boy that young be so violent? It was unfathomable to me.”

She decided to find out more about Manuel, now 37, and what she learned made her go from a place of hate to place of understanding.

“His mom was a drug addict and he was always left alone as a child,” says Baigrie. “He had no role models so he turned to crime at a very young age. Nothing was ever expected of him.”

When she learned how troubled he was, she started to feel sympathy.

Ian Manuel in 2011
Daniel Wallace/Zuma

“What my message is today is what it was 20 years ago. What we expect from our children is what we get from our children. We also have to put the work behind that expectation,” she says. “When we have children it’s our responsibility to teach them how to be productive citizens. Ian never got that.”

Manuel was charged as an adult and given three life sentences without the possibility of parole.

The Power of Forgiveness

About a year after the shooting when Baigrie said “it was all still very fresh and raw,” her phone rang. On the other line, was a collect call from Manuel.

“I accepted the call out of curiosity,” she says. “He apologized and I thanked him for calling.”

Soon after, she got a letter from him and today, she has a box filled with about 50 more.

She still experiences many different emotions years later, but at the end of the day she doesn’t sway away from her willingness to forgive.

“He really doesn’t have anyone,” she says. “I write him back but sometimes I don’t even know if he gets the letter.”

She helped him get his G.E.D. and when he was resentenced in 2011 after the US Supreme Court ruled that juveniles who commit crimes where no one is killed may not be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, Baigrie sat just three rows behind him.

He was sentenced to 65 years.

“He looked back at me and I couldn’t help but smile,” she says of the moment she saw him.”He made a huge mistake but he’s not a bad person. I want him to have a life outside of prison.”

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