June 3, 2013 at 7:04 PM ET
On January 29, 2009, Manny Rios’ life changed forever.
The then-14-year-old returned from a bike ride to his family’s house in El Centro, California, where he told his mother that while he’d been out riding without a helmet, he’d fallen and hit his head. Though he didn’t have any bumps, bruises, or bleeding, his parents decided to take him to the emergency room to get checked out.
A few hours later, he was having life-saving brain surgery.
Manny’s older sister, Mirna Rios Hennicke, remembers everything like it was yesterday.
“There are eight of us in total,” she says about her big, close-knit family. “I’m number four and he’s number eight. He’s the baby. When Manny first had his accident, we all took turns staying with him at the hospital and taking days off work.”
Eventually, Mirna took on the bulk of the responsibility caring for her brother. She quit her job as a school principal’s secretary and moved Manny up to where she and her husband lived in Hesperia, California. Manny was fitted with a wheelchair, and in 2011 underwent a surgery to repair part of the curvature of his spine.
It was in Hesperia that Manny thrived. Though he’d been home schooled during his treatment, he was able to attend classes at nearby Sultana High School.
“The school district here did an amazing job getting him all the resources and aids that he needed,” Mirna told TODAY.com. “I can’t thank the principal and his counselors enough. The whole school really took him in and adopted him into their little family. They treated him like a normal kid.”
Still, there was one thing Manny couldn’t get off his mind.
“He said he would walk when he went to get his diploma,” Mirna said. “I honestly didn’t think that he would be able to.”
But Mirna was very happily proved wrong. Earlier this week, Manny walked across the stage to accept his diploma at his graduation. One of the Rios siblings shot a video on her cell phone, which Mirna posted on YouTube and sent around to relatives and friends who hadn’t been able to attend the ceremony. From there, it kept getting forwarded and forwarded, becoming a feel-good viral sensation online.
Although Manny achieved his dream of walking, he’s not done. Next, he hopes to go to college and become a motivational speaker. He’d also like to write a book, with the proceeds going to the San Diego Children's Hospital, where he spent the first few months of his recovery.
In the meantime, the Rios family spends its time educating the community about the importance of wearing helmets. Mirna recently stopped a group of teenagers who were riding their bikes with their helmets hanging on the handlebars.
“I carry a picture of my brother on my cell phone,” she said. “I told them about what happened to Manny and what he went through, and they put their helmets on and biked away.”