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THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
'Some Kids Just Never Give Up'
3 high school seniors surmount medical, economic hardships
By Tammie Wersinger | Sentinel Staff Writer
May 16, 2004
As Charna Ballerino and her two closest friends headed to a high school baseball game Feb. 12, 2003, graduation was far from her mind.
The Lake Mary High School junior was living the good life -- a member of the varsity cheerleading squad, a rising track star and a popular honors student.
That was the old Charna.
The Charna who will walk down the aisle and receive her diploma May 25 is not the same person.
A devastating automobile accident that left Charna on life support and in a coma for about a week, in intensive care for a month and in a brain-rehabilitation unit for another month has turned the once type-A personality into a low-key, laid-back young woman.
Just the fact that the 18-year-old Longwood resident is able to graduate with her class amazes family and friends.
But knowing that she has gone from learning to walk, talk and eat again to graduating with a 3.3 grade-point average is almost unbelievable to many.
"She's a miracle girl," her mom, Bonnie Summers, said. "I was given a new child -- one that is more soft-spoken and easygoing, and she laughs a lot more now."
A Lake Mary High Student Government parliamentarian, Charna still has the desire to compete.
She rejoined the cheerleading squad, but she struggled to remember cheers and to do the flips that she has known since she was a young girl. She still runs track but has had to deal with the pain of getting back into shape.
"Her strength and courage through all this has been amazing to watch," said senior class president Nick Baragona, one of a few close friends allowed to visit her in the hospital. "Now, she's back to being my little Charna."
Charna, who will begin classes in the fall at the University of North Florida, is among the thousands of Seminole County seniors who will graduate during the next few weeks.
Most of them have had to overcome some sort of obstacle, whether it was waking up at the crack of dawn or something more serious, such as a learning disability or a family crisis.
"Some kids who are faced with tough situations just say the heck with it and quit school, while others have the inner strength that makes them want to succeed in spite of adversity," said Ken Brauman, director of guidance at Seminole High School. "Some kids just never give up."
One student who has hung in there despite family problems and a work schedule that would challenge most adults is Katiria "Kathy" Gonzalez.
She has been a major source of support -- both monetarily and morally -- for her family.
Born in Puerto Rico, the Seminole High student moved to Illinois when she was a year old and to Sanford before her senior year.
She will graduate May 26 with a B average, but that's not the story.
How she has been able to stay in school at all has left her teachers and counselors in awe.
Kathy, 18, has held down as many as two after-school jobs at a time since ninth grade.
A certified nurse's assistant, she works at least 40 hours a week at a Sanford nursing home. She also helps take care of her 9-year-old brother, who has several disabilities.
Kathy said her mom, Saida Maldonado, has been her inspiration.
"I know how hard she works," Kathy said. "And I want to better myself so I can take care of her."
Kathy, who will attend Seminole Community College and wants to be a nurse, can't remember a time of being carefree and is sometimes bothered that she can't be like many other students.
"I love both of them so much, and my little brother even calls me mom," she said. "Sometimes, I resent the fact that I can't act my age. I'm still a kid, and sometimes I want to just be a kid."
Jamaal Neal is another graduate who demonstrated a lot of inner strength to earn an appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy as a young man growing up in a single-parent household.
Jamaal, of Oviedo, doesn't see the obstacles as disadvantages. He focuses on the opportunities that he has had since deciding in middle school that he wanted to be a fighter pilot.
Jamaal, who also will graduate from Seminole High School on May 26, chose to sign up for the International Baccalaureate program knowing that it would require extra effort.
He also knew life would be tough when he decided to shoot for his goal of being a state weight-lifting champion.
Instead of taking the easy route, Jamaal decided to try both. One major obstacle has been waking up at 5 a.m. to take a bus to Seminole High and not returning home until 6 p.m.
"I did it because I had goals," Jamaal, 18, said. "My mom has guided me and made sure I stayed on track, but I'm the type of person who knows what he wants and goes for it."
In April, Jamaal was ranked second in his weight division for the second consecutive year.
While he recently opted out of the IB program because many of the college credits aren't transferable to the Air Force Academy, he still will graduate with a 3.9 GPA.
The little boy, reared for the past 10 years without a father, has become a man, reaching out for his next goal.
Jamaal begins boot camp at the academy this summer and should be fighter pilot in about four years.
"As a little boy, he always said he wanted to fly planes," his mother, Ingrid Neal, said. "I thought, if this is what he's going to do, I need to do what I can to help him reach his goal, because I know he'll do his part."
Those who have excelled despite the odds relied on what many consider to be an inner compass.
They know where they want to go in life and stay on that course despite the distractions around them, said Brauman, the school guidance director.
There are several types of students who achieve -- some are desperate to get out of a situation and make a better life for themselves, while others have a value system instilled in them that makes them want to succeed.
That value system could come from school, church, family, Girl or Boy Scouts or the parents of friends, Brauman said.
"Some place, sometime or somewhere, someone has tried to instill a value system in them," Brauman said. "And they listened."