More than 26 years ago, on July 27, 1990, Debbie Baigrie was walking to her car to head home from dinner with her friends in Tampa, Florida. Baigrie, then 28, was enjoying her first night out since giving birth to her second child.
Then she saw a group of men walking toward her.
“I’m serious, give it up,” she remembers one saying as she turned around to find a gun pointed at her. The weapon went off, sending a bullet through her mouth.
Miraculously, Baigrie survived the shooting, though she underwent some 40 dental procedures over the next 10 years.
Three days later, Ian Manuel, a 13-year-old from Tampa, confessed to the crime. In February 1991, he pleaded guilty to armed robbery and attempted murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. (No one else was ever identified in the shooting.)
While Baigrie was in shock that her assailant was just 13 — and spoke at his sentencing hearing, saying that she thought he should be rehabilitated instead of going to prison — she says she had to focus on her recovery.
“My only priority then was to help myself,” Baigrie, now 55, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “I was traumatized.”
And then, around Christmas 1991, she got a phone call from Manuel himself. He apologized and asked for her forgiveness — which she gave. After that brief conversation, the two formed a friendship that’s only grown since.
“It was hard to hear his voice,” Baigrie says, “but that took a lot of courage to do.”
While Manuel spent most of his adolescence behind bars, he says she helped get him through it.
“She became a mother to me,” he tells PEOPLE. “She helped me grow up.”
Baigrie was also one of Manuel’s biggest advocates. Along with the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama nonprofit involved in Manuel’s case since 2006, she helped secure his freedom.
In November 2016, Manuel, now 40, was released from prison after a 2010 Supreme Court decision prohibited life-without-parole sentences for juveniles charged with anything less than murder.
Baigrie was there to greet him on the outside.
“I was able to live a great life while he was behind bars,” she says. “He was so young, and over time I got to see how smart and thoughtful he was. He now has a second chance.”