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Part 1: Survivor Winner’s Journey in CA
CEDAR RAPIDS, IA/TEMECULA, CA (CBS2/FOX28) -15 minutes of fame, that's the prize for quite a few folks who find their way into the reality TV world. Initially, that was exactly what Cedar Rapids Survivor contestant, Denise Stapley, thought she was in for. Then a little more than a year ago, she won a million dollars on the popular CBS reality show.
As it turns out, money has actually just been a side bar for Denise. Her family didn't buy a new house or a new car. Yet, her 15 minutes is leading to a lifetime of perspective. She is a therapist by trade and has spent her career helping people. She thought that was her path toward community service. Denise explained that she would help out folks who couldn't pay or give extra therapy time to them. It seemed like a good way to make a difference, but it was a social media encounter thanks to Survivor that changed her mind on what she is capable of giving and receiving.
"When I decided to do this, I thought this was just going to be an experience for myself and my family like, that's what we envisioned," Stapley said.
Brandon Federowicz, 20, from Buffalo, New York had a much different plan. He contacted Stapley while the season of Survivor Philippines was airing. He's been watching Survivor since the very first season and is a bit of a Survivor fanatic.
"Every Facebook post he writes has exclamation points all over the place. This is such a happy...ah sorry, I'm getting teary..." Stapley said as emotion started to take over. This was just days before her opportunity to meet Brandon in person.
It seemed like the typical online communication between a reality star and a fan, and then Denise received a private message from Brandon's mom, explaining that he has Autism.
"He knew the basics, 'hello, nice to meet you,' then he was lost." Brandon's mom, Charlene Federowicz said.
"She wanted to basically explain that because he was using Facebook and Twitter as his practice ground to practice social interaction," Denise said.
For more than a year, through daily messaging, Denise has helped Brandon just as he has helped her.
"He's just so happy, it's a positive interaction, it's making somebody happy by simply being available. That's it, I'm just here. I'm not doing anything special other than responding," Denise said as the simplicity of the interaction brought tears.
Spending time with Brandon hasn't been the only way Denise has given back. Since Survivor, she has taken part in Reality Rally, an event in Temecula, California that unites fans with reality stars while raising money for charity.
"You make a difference, so that's what I get out of this," Denise said.
Fans that raise enough money get to choose the star they participate in the rally with. Brandon wanted to work with Denise from the beginning. Initially Charlene told him he'd have to wait until 2015 to go to the rally, but then decided 2014 would be the year.
"He started counting down the days from when I said, 'yes.'" Charlene said.
So, Denise with her husband, Brad, by her side, set out to meet Brandon at Reality Rally.
"I'm just excited to meet him and kind of get to meet him face to face!" She said while waiting for her flight at the Eastern Iowa Airport.
When that face to face moment came at Pala Mesa Resort in Fallbrook, California, there were tears from Charlene as she watched her son wrap tiny Denise in a big bear hug.
"It was seeing his joy, because he doesn't have people his age, they don't relate to him as well, so he doesn't have a lot of friends!" Charlene said.
Yet, it was clear, Brandon does have a true friend in Denise.
"She's my favorite. I started liking her since the first episode of the Philippines," Brandon exclaimed.
Denise is a friend who has helped Brandon through much more than a struggle to communicate, but also a struggle with grief.
Brandon's dad, John, was diagnosed with leukemia in April of last year. He died in October. Charlene said it was really John who brought them all here.
"What would dad say? He'd say, 'take the kid,'" Charlene explained.
"It's an honor to run in memory of your dad!" Denise said as Brandon excitedly responded, "same thing, it's awesome to meet you!"
He went on to explain that he knew his dad was seeing everything they were accomplishing in California.
"Yes, he is watching right now. I will miss him a lot," he said.
Then, as the sun shone through the branches of the trees at Pala Mesa Resort, Denise explained that she was sure John was smiling right then. Brandon agreed.
To watch part 2: Click below
To watch part 3: Click below