Cameron Perez had planned to spend part of his winter break from Gaither High riding along with a friend who was moving to Indianapolis.
They wanted to share the ride, have some fun and then fly back home before school resumed.
Instead, Cameron’s friend lost control of the car, slammed into a wall, went down an embankment and crashed into a tree.
The accident occurred around 3 a.m. on Dec. 26 on a stretch of Interstate 65 near Bowling Green, Ky.
The police report attributed the crash to a combination of the driver’s speed, the condition of the car’s tires and the weather, said Robert Perez, Cameron’s dad.
Cameron sustained 60 percent damage to his brain, cracked ribs, a punctured lung, a fractured clavicle and three fractured vertebrates, his dad said.
The young man was transported to Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville, Ky., before being transferred to Tampa General Hospital.
He was later taken to Sabal Palms of Largo, an assisted care facility, where he is staying now, but will return to Tampa General for intensive rehabilitation.
Despite the long road to recovery that faces Cameron, the family has been comforted by the kindness of both strangers and friends, Robert said.
“When that accident happened, there was a cop literally one mile behind the accident. He got there, and when he assessed it he could see that Cameron was having trouble breathing,” Robert said. The officer, Jeremy Smith, moved Cameron’s head and put a towel under it so the teenager could breathe.
The ambulance was two miles away and the fire department responded within minutes, Robert said.
Hospital staff had given his son a 15 percent chance of survival, his dad said.
But Robert knew that they didn’t know Cameron.
“I never once thought he was not going to make it,” Robert said. “I can’t explain how I knew. I just knew.”
When Cameron’s friend, Dean “London” Bousaid, heard about the accident, he began rallying the Gaither community to get involved.
The school turned its Multicultural Extravaganza on Jan. 23 into a fundraiser for Cameron. The event featured ethnic foods and performances by students wearing costumes representing the cultures of Africa, Asia, South America, the Caribbean and Europe.
Various school clubs also have had fundraisers, and Tanya & Matt’s Ice Creamiest Colonial Promenade, a school partner, stepped in to help out, said Marie Whelan, Gaither’s principal.
Gaither students also had a massive car wash and sold T-shirts and wristbands, Robert said.
The outpouring of kindness was unexpected.
“It was amazing — the love and support that that school gave a student who hadn’t even been there for a year,” Robert said. “It was very touching. Words don’t describe it.”
When he arrived at the car wash, he saw that about 50 kids had turned out to help. He said he couldn’t believe it.
“I sat in my car and cried,” he said.
Whelan has been impressed, too: “It has been totally student-driven. They continue to just amaze me every single day.”
It will be a long road back for Cameron, Robert said.
Before the accident, his son was strong, quick and flexible.
“He was a natural athlete,” Robert said. “He could walk on his hands. He could do back-flips. He could run up walls and back-flip off of them. He could do pushups. He could do splits.”
He was a free spirit, too. He enjoyed having fun and wasn’t necessarily known for having a strong work ethic, his dad said. One reason Cameron was living with him was to stay focused and finish high school.
Cameron’s parents are separated. His mom, Sherie Perez, lives in Plant City.
Robert said he and his wife have differences, but they are united in their commitment to help their son recover.
Before attending Gaither, Cameron was on the wrestling teams at Plant City and Durant high schools. He also played football for the Turkey Creek Trojans, his dad said.
The young man liked to skateboard, listen to rap music, hang out with his friends and go to the beach.
Now, he is slowly making progress.
During the first month after the car crash, it was mostly a matter of survival. During the second month, Cameron’s brain and other injuries were healing. Now, the young man is saying words and indicating he remembers people and how to do things, his dad said.
“It’s one miracle after another,” Robert said.
Beyond the kindness shown by hospital workers, emergency personnel and the Gaither community, Cameron’s dad is also touched by the way his son’s friends have rallied around him.
On his 18th birthday, which was Feb. 28, about 60 kids came to Largo to see him.
Cameron’s grandparents, Carlos and Shirley Perez, have been visiting him daily, a fact his dad appreciates because he can’t get there every day.
While Robert is confident his son will recover physically, he’s not sure how Cameron will be affected mentally or if the injuries will affect the young man’s personality.
He’s also concerned about how he will provide the things Cameron needs. He was already struggling financially before the accident. Expenses he had not expected have compounded those challenges.
“I’m on a long journey,” Robert said.
But he’s determined to do what he can for his son.
“The only thing you have is faith and time,” Robert said. He added, “This is the hand that was dealt to me, and I have to play it. I will not stop until I get him back 100 percent. A happy life for him — that’s all I want.”