"To be able to do all that she has done I'm going to be talking about her forever probably," Freddie Jackson says
Lolita Guillory was working as a fire department dispatcher in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 and changed her family’s life forever.
After she and her daughter were evacuated to Opelousas, Louisiana, four firefighters from Houston, Texas, took it upon themselves to help get the small family back on its feet.
“I knew the firefighters for 20 years from a group I was in [the International Organization of Black Professional Firefighters],” Lolita tells PEOPLE. “And as soon as we had [evacuated], they were calling us, saying, ‘Hey, what do you guys need?’ ”
When firefighter Freddie Jackson heard about the situation, he rented an SUV and drove from Houston to Louisiana to help the evacuees. “I think it was just a challenge from God who said, ‘Some of your people need help. Go get them,’ ” Jackson tells PEOPLE.
Upon seeing Lolita and her daughter Samina, he says, “I was so happy to see them and [to see] that they were alive. I completely lost my mind. And the first words out of my mouth to them were, ‘Where’s y’all’s stuff?’ ”
The mother and daughter told him they had lost everything. “When we got to Houston, I just took them to Walmart and said, ‘You guys just get whatever you need,’ ” Jackson says. “I just paid for it out of my own pocket.”
After living in Houston for two months, Lolita decided to stay in Texas instead of returning home to a city that was still very much in recovery. “I thought Samina would have a better quality of life here with more educational opportunities,” she says.
As she and her daughter settled into their new lives, the four firefighters continued to find ways to help. “They helped me get a place, they would go pick her up from school, they would make her lunches, they [became] my family,” Lolita says.
“We just became mentors and I guess father-like figures for both Lolita and her daughter,” Jackson says. “We stuck with them.”
With this extra support, Samina grew up to be “extraordinary,” Jackson says, despite the fact that her move to Houston was followed by two major tragedies: the deaths of her father and brother.
“She could ve just said, ‘I lost everything – I lost my dad, I lost my brother – that’s enough right there,” Jackson tells PEOPLE. “It would ve been really easy to say ‘You know what? I quit.’ ”
But Samina didn’t quit – she worked hard and became the first student from her high school, Cristo Rey Jesuit, to earn an Ivy League acceptance: Cornell. The bright 18-year-old was accepted to nine schools in total, ultimately choosing Stanford University. “She’s head over heels about Stanford,” Lolita tells PEOPLE.
In addition to her impressive list of academic accomplishments, Samina always found time outside of her studies to volunteer with Jackson. “Samina really became my girl because when I had events in the community, she’d pick up the phone and say, ‘Mr. Freddie, is there any way I can help?’ ” Jackson says.
After retiring from the Houston Fire Department, Jackson continued serving the community. Lolita calls the 63-year-old a “volunteer nut” – his current causes include: educating kids and the elderly about fire safety, starting an anti-bullying organization and serving as a mentor.
He also started a food drive during Thanksgiving and Christmas and a toy drive for needy kids. “Every year, I don t have to call Samina, Samina calls me, and she helps me with my toy drive and my food drive and she goes the extra mile,” Jackson says. “To be able to do all that she has done – I’m going to be talking about her forever probably.”
Lolita attributes her daughter’s sense of community service to Jackson’s influence. Jackson has taught Samina that with every new accomplishment, “somebody’s coming behind you or beside you and they might need help,” she says.
On Saturday, Freddie and Lolita watched Samina graduate from high school. Before the ceremony, Freddie told PEOPLE: “Just to see her walk up at that graduation, there are just going to be butterflies going up in my heart. I’m going to eat it up with pride.”
Although Jackson says he’s “already missing” Samina ahead of her move to California, he knows their story won’t end there. “Just because she’s leaving, I’m not through with her. I’m going to see her all the way until she graduates. I’ve already got the money set aside for my airline ticket and hotel stay – that’s how much I believe in her.”