Forgiveness is not always easy to bestow and as such, has always been a complex concept. When we are hurt by somebody, feelings get in the way and dictate our actions. It can take years or just a few moments for someone to forgive another.

But one thing is certain, forgiveness requires us to look beyond ourselves and find empathy. So when Debbie Baigrie was shot in the face during a robbery, few people would have thought she would come help the man who did it find his freedom.

A robbery that could have taken her life

Back in 1990, 13-year-old Ian Manuel was living in Tampa’s poorest and most violent housing projects. It was during one July evening that his life was about to take a turn for the worsts.

As he was hanging out with a group of older teens, he was brought into a situation a child of his age should never have been in.

Debbie had just had her second child and was on an evening out with friends when the group of teenagers approached her. They threatened her but it was Ian, despite being the youngest, who held the gun.

“I heard from behind, ‘I’m serious, give it up,'” Baigrie recalls.

That’s when 13-year-old Ian pulled the trigger and shot her right in the face. The outcome could have been fatal. “It blew out all the bottom teeth and the gums on the lower left side of my mouth,” she said.

As a result, her front tooth was also knocked out and part of her tongue was ripped.

She couldn’t comprehend how a child came to be in this situation

“The days after the incident, I was obviously scared and in pain,” she told PEOPLE. “I kept on wondering, Who could have done this?”

Ian was arrested 3 days later for another crime. That’s when he confessed to being Debbie’s shooter but she remained unaware of his age or identity until she read it in the newspapers. The news left her in shock.

I’m like 13?! There’s no way a 13-year-old kid shot me. He’s just a child.

Debbie Baigrie

Ian was given a life sentence–at only 14

In February 1991, Ian pleaded guilty to the charges of armed robbery and attempted murder. The judge sentenced him to life in prison, without parole. But that didn’t sit right with Debbie.

“The judge said, ‘Mr. Manuel, we’re going to make an example of you,'” Debbie told TODAY.

They sentenced him to an adult prison … To me, that was heartbreaking.

Debbie Baigrie to TODAY

While he served his sentence, Ian was filled with regret. Two years into it, he finally mustered up enough courage to contact Debbie and placed a collect call.

“As soon as she accepted the call I said, ‘Miss Baigrie, this is Ian. I’m just calling to tell you I’m sorry for shooting you, and I wish you and your family a merry Christmas,'” he said.

That’s what I blurted out. What do you say to somebody you shot, you know?

Ian Manuel in TODAY

The call was a complete surprise to Debbie, who would have 10 years of reconstructive surgery to go through for her jaw.

“I was shaken by it because (the attack) was still so fresh at the time,” Debbie said. “But he called to apologize. I found it unusual and rare, especially from somebody that young.”

But Ian was not done expressing his regrets

“I didn’t consciously forgive him,” Debbie told PEOPLE. “It was just over time, when I got through my trauma.”

Ian began sending her letters, which Debbie initially thought to have been written by someone else. “His letters were so articulate and he was so young. I don’t even know if he had started high school yet,” she said.

As he continued his correspondence, alongside Debbie’s healing process, her perspective changed.

I thought, wow, this kid is smart,. Let’s not waste this life. Let’s give him a chance. He was smart, he was remorseful.

Debbie Baigrie in TODAY

So she began writing back.

A correspondence that turned into an unlikely friendship

As years past, the two had exchanged dozens of letters. “Even though he was so young, he was thoughtful,” Debbie said, adding, “You could tell in his letters how thoughtful he was. They were so well written.”

As she got to know Ian, she also became acquainted with the details of his case and sentence. She attended his court hearings and the two even shared an occasional wave.

In her heart, Debbie had forgiven him.

He was so young. It was a mistake. It wasn’t hard to forgive him.

Debbie Baigrie to PEOPLE

Debbie told him to get his GED and encouraged him to “keep learning, reading and improving himself.” So he did, and sent her back his scores.

She became a mother to me. She helped me grow up.

Ian Manuel to PEOPLE

They couldn’t understand how she forgave him

It wasn’t until he turned 40 that Ian was released from prison, following a Supreme Court decision that prohibited life sentences for juveniles charged with anything less than murder.

And when he was finally free, Debbie was there to greet him outside.

I got to do something that I had only dreamed about for so many years. I got to kiss her on the same exact spot that the bullet either went in or came out.

Ian Manuel to TODAY

Many of Debbie’s friends and relatives didn’t understand how she could forgive the person who had shot her. “People would tell me, ‘You’re delusional’ and ‘You have Stockholm syndrome,’ which doesn’t even make sense,” she said.

But to her, it was about saving a life.

I figure if I didn’t help and support him, it would be a life lost. And my life wasn’t lost, and I felt like his punishment was way beyond what it should have been.

Debbie Baigrie to TODAY

Ian’s experiences in prison upset her. Due to his size and age, prison officials placed him in isolation, which is a traumatizing ordeal for a child. This led to severe impact on his mental health, which caused him to be separated from the rest of the prison population for nearly 20 years.

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Debbie’s support from the outside was what helped Ian remain sane in the midst of his trials.

“What does it mean to a traumatized kid, racked with guilt and stuck in solitary confinement, to have the person he hurt recognize his humanity?” Ben Schaefer, Ian’s attorney said. “Ian would not be where he is today without her.”

A brighter future ahead

When Debbie and Ian reunited, it was at a pizza joint in Tampa not far from where the shooting had occurred 26 years ago. Together, they sat down and discussed Ian’s plans for the future.

He opened his first bank account and learned how to cook, drive, and do his groceries. Ian also spoke about in college classes about his story with the hope to help others.

I’m just so thankful for this opportunity, and I’m thankful that Debbie survived and that I survived as well.

Ian Manuel to PEOPLE

As for Debbie, she has an important message about forgiveness

We all make mistakes, we all try our best, and life is so short. And if anybody knows how your life can be gone in one minute, it’s me. I understand that. We have to forgive, because it helps us heal.

Debbie Baigrie in TODAY

That’s some piece of wisdom we can all benefit from.

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