'Improvements every day'

VALRICO - Although blind, paralyzed and unable to speak, the woman who has come to be known as "everyone's daughter" was able to laugh and even try to blow out the candle on her banana bombe dessert as she celebrated her 19th birthday April 22 at her favorite sushi restaurant.

But her mother said she now considers today, April 24, her daughter's second birthday.
"That's the day she was reborn as a different person," her mother told friends at an April 18 prayer vigil for her daughter.

The East Bay High School senior was raped and beaten at the Bloomingdale Regional Public Library a year ago today. The vigil at her home was testimony that the young woman, whose identity is being protected because of the nature of the crime, is still very much on the minds and in the hearts of those who know her.

The house was packed, with stragglers spilling out the back door.

"She has two birthdays now because she is a different person than she was a year ago," her mother said Thursday. She doesn't think her daughter is less of a person because of her disabilities. She said her daughter's experiences have made her more sensitive to the feelings of others.

The young woman's 22-year-old sister agrees, although she'd give anything to turn back the hands of time.

Choked and beaten, the young woman was nearly unrecognizable when sheriff's deputies found her beside the library, her sister said. "The doctors told us she wouldn't make it," she said. "She not only survived, she's surpassed all their predictions. I attribute that to prayers, love and her amazing will. I really miss my little sister the way she was, but she's incredible the way she is.
When she smiles, everything's OK."

Working with volunteer therapists, who now provide about 75 percent of the young woman's therapy, she is making slow progress, her sister said. Although she's fed through a feeding tube, she loves going to restaurants with her family and "tasting" foods. She's mostly nonverbal but can now say "mom." She also is quick to laugh at jokes and cry at sad movies.

Kendrick Morris, 17, of Clair-Mel City is charged with the assault. Morris, who has been appointed a public defender, pleaded not guilty and remains in jail without bail. A status hearing is set for June 8.

In the year since the attack, the community has responded with fundraisers, donations to a fund set up for the victim, gifts, letters, a van with a wheelchair lift and renovations to the family's home to accommodate her medical needs. Every penny is appreciated and well-spent, family friend Cheryl Zemina said.

Whenever she has a chance to speak to the community, the young woman's mother never asks for financial assistance. Instead, she asks for prayers. She said she believes in miracles, that God will hear their prayers and heal her daughter.

"She blows me away," Zemina said. "She has so much faith. I've never once heard her express anger toward the person who committed this crime. She has this sense of peace and that, in my opinion, can only come from God. Her capacity for forgiveness and acceptance is unbelievable. I'm humbled by her."

Her mother's attitude doesn't surprise the victim's sister.

"It's easy for us to stay hopeful. We see improvements every day," she said. "There's really no room for bitterness. You just have to move forward."

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