In 2003 Cara Gunn was one of the most talked-about people in Derry. At the time she was undergoing a painful and expensive custody battle with her ex-husband Bobby Gunn - a man she alleged was abusive - over care of their five year old son Dylan.
Cara wanted to bring him home to Derry so that she could rebuild her life close to her family friends. However Bobby wanted to keep him in Florida.
The bitter twist in the tale was that Cara had never applied for US citizenship and if she lost her custody battle - which she did - she would be forced to leave America, and her precious son, behind.
So moved were the people of Derry by her plight that they donated what they could, held fundraisers and offered their support across the miles. One memorable work of graffitti on the the city walls proclaimed; “Bring the Gunns back for Christmas”.
The $10,000 needed to lodge an appeal to the American court system was raised in a matter of days and further funds were raised to support Cara - who could not work due to not having a visa - while she fought on.
The battle rolled on for several years until Cara was able to gain a visa, get work and a ruling was made in favour of joint custody .
“Wednesday is, and always will be, Dylan day,” Cara said happily. “Everyone who knows me knows that on Wednesday’s Dylan comes first.”
She also has custody of her son every second weekend. While she said she and her ex will never be friends, she added that things “are a lot calmer now”.
“We work around each other. We get on for Dylan and that is what matters. There came a stage when we both realised the only person being hurt by all of this was him and that was the time to make things work the best we could.”
“Sadly Dylan still bears some of the emotional scars of what we went through. He needs more reassurance. Me and his dad, well we were big and ugly enough to deal with it but it was different for Dylan.
“That said, he is a happy young man. He is extremely affectionate and a real mammy’s boy - in the nicest way.
“When he is with me he is always telling me how I’m the best mom in the world. He leaves notes all round the house for me - telling me how he loves me.
“He’ll always put one on the kettle because he knows that is the first place I go to in the morning to make a cup of coffee.”
To be with her son, Cara has had to settle herself to a life in the States - although a part of her always hankers for home.
“Of course I miss home. I will always miss Derry. But there is no way I will ever be allowed to take Dylan out of the country so I have made a new home here. I would never leave wihout him.
“But it is the wee things which are hardest. I miss my family - everyone belonging to me - and of course I miss my ma. I’d say I miss her the most. It would be lovely to call in for a wee cup of coffee and to have a chat. That is hard but my priority is Dylan and always will be.”
Cara is, however, very happy now. She said that she is perhaps “the happiest I have been since I was a teenager”.
As things settled down around her battle for Dylan she forged a new life for herself. In 2005 she bid for a contract as a mail delivery provider on her local route (the postal service in Florida being completely privatised) and secured her own business.
Last April a second route became available and with her daughter Laura, who is now an adult, she secured that route also.
“We do well. We can pay the bills. We live a fairly comfortable life and we get to work together.
“I’m self employed so the responsibility of making sure everything is covered all the time lies with me but it’s something I enjoy.”
The biggest change in her life though has been her relationship with Charlie Gerber, who she started dating in 2005.
“Charlie’s like a typical Derry man,” she laughs, “Not so big on the old romantic gestures. But he is a good man. He would give me the shirt off his back.
“Our relationship works really well. There is no shouting. There is no tension, like there was before (with Bobby). I feel secure.
“He is my happy ending. We’ve been together for six years and while we do have our disagreements, as every couple do, there is never a raised voice.”
The couple got engaged last Thanksgiving and hope to get married soon. “We think we will just do it quietly - just us and the kids. Weddings are not important - it is the marriage that matters and I know with Charlie I have a good man.”
The icing on the cake for Cara and Charlie was the birth of their son, also called Charlie, 19 months ago.
“He’s adorable. He’s such a funny, happy, contented wee man. He has been a wee star and everyone loves him.
“Dylan adores being a big brother and Laura has him ruined.
“He’s such a calm wee man - I think maybe because he isn’t growing up in a tense environment.
“He and Dylan and are already the best of friends - it’s brilliant to watch them together.”
Now 37, Cara said she will never, ever forget the kindness of the Derry people who funded her battles to stay with her son and who helped fund her to stay in the States when she was unable to work.
“If you want to talk about knights in shining armour - well the people of Derry were my saviours.
“They gave me my son. They allowed me to stay and parent him and be with him. I thank God for the good people of Derry everyday.
“It is simply the case that without them I would not have been able to stay.
“I would have had to get on a plane and come home without my five year-old son.
“That would have been unthinkable.
“Never in a million years will I be able to say thank you or to pay them back.”
Sent the Journal
While in America Cara said the support from back up - outside of the financial help she was given - kept her buoyed up.
“My ma used to send me the Journal over and let me see what people were doing.
“ It was overwhelming - completely and totally overwhelming.
“To think that people could do that - could reach out like that - it was very humbling.
“I never pass a collection plate now. I know that people can be in need for a variety of reasons.
“Once that was me and people came to my aid - I’ll never be able to repay that - but I’ll make sure I’ll help other people in the best way I can.
“I want to thank the people of Derry now, here. You will never know what you did for me.”